WASHINGTON ― Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Thursday called on Israel to make “significant course corrections” in Gaza, urging the country to protect civilians, allow in humanitarian aid and hold new elections, in a huge rebuke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

“Palestinian civilians do not deserve to suffer for the sins of Hamas and Israel has a moral obligation to do better. The United States must do better,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.

Netanyahu, Schumer continued, “has lost his way by allowing his political survival to take precedence over the best interests of Israel.”

“The Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after Oct. 7. 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 added.

Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish official in American history and the first Jewish Senate majority leader, has been a staunch supporter of Israel following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and the military campaign to return Israeli hostages being held in Gaza. His speech on Thursday was a seismic shift in his approach to the conflict. The New York senator has been under growing pressure from progressives who believe Israel needs to do more to prevent the loss of innocent lives in Gaza, where the death toll has reportedly topped 30,000.

Beyond calling for new elections, Schumer staked out a new position in support of President Joe Biden’s administration using alternative tools — including potentially conditioning aid — to put increased pressure on the Netanyahu government.

“If extremists continue to unduly influence Israeli policy, then the administration should use tools at its disposal to make sure our support for Israel is aligned with our broader goal of achieving long-term peace and stability in the region,” Schumer said.

Last week, eight members of the Democratic caucus sent a letter to Biden urging him to enforce federal law by requiring Netanyahu’s government to stop restricting humanitarian aid access to Gaza or lose U.S. military aid to Israel.

“Federal law is clear, and, given the urgency of the crisis in Gaza, and the repeated refusal of Prime Minister Netanyahu to address U.S. concerns on this issue, immediate action is necessary to secure a change in policy by his government,” the senators wrote in the letter.

Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud party, is currently in his third stint as Israel’s prime minister, but this one is different than the previous two. He most recently came to power in 2022 on the back of a coalition that included extreme far-right political parties, some with roots in the fascistic terrorist movement led by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. Netanyahu’s coalition partners are fanatics who question democracy, support the full annexation of the West Bank and endorse pogroms against Palestinians.

Schumer explicitly called out Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir as the extremist elements in Netanyahu’s government who must go. He declared that both ministers, who represent far-right settler parties, “openly” support violence by settlers in the West Bank against Palestinians.

“As long as they hold their positions of power, no true progress will be made,” Schumer said.

In his speech Thursday, Schumer also pointed the finger at Hamas, calling on the militant group to agree to a deal to release Israeli hostages and expressing frustration with media coverage that was critical only of Israel. Furthermore, he chided protesters of Israel’s military campaign who have failed to acknowledge the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

“It bothers me deeply that most media outlets covering this war, and many protesters opposing it, have placed the blame for civilian casualties entirely on Israel,” Schumer said. “All too often, in the media and at protests, it is never noted that Hamas has gone to great lengths to make themselves inseparable from the civilian population of Gaza by using Palestinians as human shields.”

Senate Democrats aren’t completely united in the U.S. approach to Israel’s war in Gaza, however. Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), to the delight of Republicans who have criticized him in the past, has emerged as a staunch supporter of Israel’s military campaign, including its plans to enter the Gaza Strip’s southern city of Rafah.

“I don’t believe we should be intervening in any of that,” Fetterman told HuffPost on Thursday, in a break with Schumer. “I wouldn’t want any nation, even our closest allies, to have influence on our elections.”

Republicans similarly criticized Schumer for calling on Israel to hold new elections.

“Israel’s unity government and security cabinet deserves the deference befiting a sovereign democratic country,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor shortly after Schumer spoke.

“It is grotesque and hypocritical for Americans who hyperventilate about foreign interference in our own democracy to call for the removal of a democratically elected leader of Israel,” he added.

During a press conference at a GOP retreat in West Virginia, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) called Schumer’s message “highly inappropriate.”

“It’s just plain wrong, for an American leader to play such a divisive role in Israeli politics, while our closest ally in the region is in an existential battle for its very survival,” he said.

The clash over U.S. support for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza will continue next week ahead of a key deadline to fund parts of the federal government, including the State Department. Democrats are pushing to restore funding to UNRWA, the United Nations’ main Palestinian relief agency. The U.S. paused its support for the agency after Israel accused 12 of the agency’s workers of participating in the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

Republicans want to make the pause permanent, however, complicating negotiations over a deal needed to avert a partial government shutdown.

Jonathan Nicholson contributed reporting.

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