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A new era on Capitol Hill for Israel

For decades, support for Israel and its leaders was unquestioned in Congress. U.S. politicians never criticized the Jewish state, certainly not in public — and certainly never called for a change in government.

But Thursday was an extraordinary moment, one that underscores how the war in Gaza and the controversy over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have permanently altered the Democratic Party’s relationship with one of America’s closest allies.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in U.S. history, went to the Senate floor and called for new elections to replace Netanyahu. Schumer also suggested that restrictions on U.S. aid may be necessary in order to pressure the Israeli government to change direction.

Minutes later, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell slammed Schumer’s remarks as “grotesque” and “unprecedented.” Other Republicans followed suit. Israeli officials piled on as well. Amir Ohana, the speaker of the Knesset, said Schumer’s “words contravene the reciprocal respect that should define our relationship.”

Michael Herzog, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said Schumer’s remarks were “counterproductive to our common goals.” Herzog was at the House Republican retreat Thursday, where he did a question-and-answer session behind closed doors with GOP lawmakers. Herzog also spoke to Senate Republicans the day before.

Dems reel: The friction over the U.S.-Israel relationship has only worsened following the horrific Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas. Israel’s ferocious military campaign against Hamas in Gaza — which has left tens of thousands of Palestinians dead or injured — has set off a political firestorm across the United States, especially inside the Democratic Party.

Progressives on and off Capitol Hill are angry with President Joe Biden and party leaders over their continued support for Israel. Democratic events regularly feature loud protests over the war, while younger Democrats threaten to stay home in November.

Biden, who bearhugged Netanyahu during an Oct. 18 visit to Israel, has been left looking increasingly powerless to end the war or even bring about a temporary ceasefire. Biden was caught on a hot mic following the State of the Union saying a “Come to Jesus” moment was near with Netanyahu, and top administration officials hosted Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz in Washington last week.

The White House also was aware of what Schumer would say, although that doesn’t mean administration officials endorse his comments.

The fallout: Republicans have urged total support for Israel, arguing that now isn’t the time to second-guess Netanyahu or Israel’s conduct of the war. They refuse to consider limits or restrictions on American aid. And they were infuriated by Schumer’s comments.

“What [Schumer] said today was earth-shatteringly bad,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a longtime friend of Netanyahu. “The majority leader of the United States Senate is calling on the people of Israel to overthrow their government.”

But progressives, in particular, were ecstatic, seeing it as a chance for a reset in how the Biden administration will deal with Israel. Democrats want Biden to start using the United States’ leverage over Israel to prompt a course correction in that country’s political landscape.

“It’s a new era. It’s the beginning, I believe,” Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) told us. “How can we continue pretending that we back our policies when we’re saying yes to Netanyahu no matter how much he disregards them? We’re for a two-state solution, he’s against it. We’re for stopping settlements in the West Bank, Netanyahu is for it.”

At the center of everything is Netanyahu, of course. His 16-plus nonconsecutive years as Israel’s leader have been marked by tense debates in Washington over his frequent alignment with Republican positions while never completely disavowing Democrats.

That’s certainly changed, as evidenced by Schumer’s criticism Thursday of Netanyahu’s “governing vision that is stuck in the past.” Other Democrats were quick to justify Schumer’s comments by pointing to Netanyahu’s open hostility toward the Obama administration’s efforts on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

“It should not come to anybody’s surprise who’s followed this issue,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) said of the longtime Israeli leader. “Prime Minister Netanyahu has never been shy about expressing his preferences in American politics.”

Yet several Democrats we spoke with after Schumer’s speech wouldn’t go as far as he did in calling for new elections, even as they praised the New York Democrat’s remarks.

“The question of whether there’s a new election ought to be for the Israelis to decide,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. “But I think there are very legitimate and strong questions that Sen. Schumer has raised.”

One top Democrat, though, acknowledged that the U.S.-Israel relationship is “fraying.” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told us that Israel is “underestimating the extent to which their current war plan is isolating them in the international community, including in the United States.”

“It’s a very serious rift, but friends have rifts,” Schatz added. “Nothing can be done to make Israel safe if what’s being done creates a situation where Israel is alone.”

Impeachment news: White House Counsel Edward Siskel wrote to Speaker Mike Johnson urging the top House Republican to end the impeachment inquiry into Biden. This is the first outreach from Biden’s top White House lawyer directly to Johnson. It also shows how Biden is going on offense against the GOP investigators in the now six-month-old probe.

— Andrew Desiderio, John Bresnahan and Jake Sherman

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