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Opinion Schumer said out loud what many of Israel’s friends are thinking

Among liberals and many moderates who support the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish homeland, the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7 and the ensuing war in Gaza have called forth anger, agony and a reckoning.

This constituency, which looms large in the Democratic Party and among American Jews, has been whipsawed by competing moral commitments: justified rage over Hamas’s slaughter of innocents; an insistence that Israel has a right to defend itself; alarm over the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians as the war has dragged on; and a conviction that peace will require a settlement based on two states for Israelis and Palestinians.

Underlying all these concerns is exasperation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is in thrall to his government’s extreme-right coalition partners and whose policies are alienating his country’s longtime friends, in the United States and elsewhere.

This constellation of views has been common enough in synagogues and in political conversations over kitchen tables. But it took genuine courage for Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to articulate it in a remarkable speech on the Senate floor Thursday. Schumer spoke simultaneously of his passion for Israel — “We love Israel in our bones,” he said — and an insistence that “Palestinian civilians do not deserve to suffer for the sins of Hamas.”

Follow this authorE.J. Dionne Jr.‘s opinions

What grabbed headlines around the world was his frank assessment of Netanyahu’s government. “As a lifelong supporter of Israel, it has become clear to me: The Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after October 7,” he said. “The world has changed — radically — since then, and the Israeli people are being stifled right now by a governing vision that is stuck in the past.” He called for a new election as “the only way to allow for a healthy and open decision-making process about the future.”

A brief summary doesn’t do justice to the nuances and personal anguish conveyed in the 6,000-word speech, which cast aside diplomatic niceties and identified “four major obstacles” standing in the way of peace and a two-state settlement: “Hamas, and the Palestinians who support and tolerate their evil ways. Radical right-wing Israelis in government and society. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”

We live in a time when crass political motives are regularly ascribed to whatever elected officials do. Lord knows, Schumer is no stranger to the imperatives of politics. He’s very skilled at the business.

But there was no guaranteed political upside to this speech. It immediately earned criticism both from Republicans as interfering in Israeli politics and from parts of the Democratic left for being insufficiently critical of Israel and lacking policy specifics on ending the war.

What the speech does represent is a watershed, as the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz called it. It’s hard to find anyone who has been as pro-Israel as Schumer during his 43-year congressional career. For him to split with Netanyahu so sharply and so publicly speaks to the profound change in opinion among Israel’s sympathizers since the Gaza war began. But this shift builds upon on a far longer estrangement between Netanyahu and American liberals.

“Chuck Schumer’s speech is proof that one by one, Netanyahu is losing Israel’s biggest supporters in the U.S.,” said Israeli centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid. “Even worse — he’s doing it on purpose.”

That Schumer reflected a current running deep among traditionally pro-Israel Democrats was brought home Friday when President Biden called his effort “a good speech” that “expressed a serious concern shared not only by him but by many Americans.”

There was nothing precipitous about this intervention. “I spent two months thinking about this and wrestling with it,” Schumer told me in an interview Friday. Far from being an attack on Israel, Schumer said, it was an attempt to shore up support for the Jewish state, particularly among young Americans who have known Israel only under Netanyahu’s leadership.

“Too many people are turning against Israel because of their dislike for Netanyahu,” he said. “And I felt an imperative to show that you could be against Netanyahu and still be very pro-Israel, which of course I am.”

And he defended his call for early elections as consistent with the wishes Israelis themselves have expressed to pollsters. Surveys also show that Netanyahu would be voted out if an election were held now. “We’re not determining who Israel should pick,” Schumer told me. “We’re just asking that they get a right to choose when so many people are just upset with the direction of the present government in Israel.”

It’s rare for a speech on the Senate floor to create a sense of relief, but this was the effect of Schumer’s willingness to say out loud what so many were thinking. “No one else could have done it other than Chuck,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said in a statement. “No one has the spiritual and emotional connections to Israel.”

Schumer’s bottom line is hard to dispute. “Israel cannot survive,” he said in his speech, “if it becomes a pariah.”

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