Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 20 March 2024



Opinion | What Schumer and Biden Got Right About Netanyahu

Chuck Schumer walks on a dark stairway. His shadow appears on a wall past him.
Credit... Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters
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One of my ironclad rules of journalism is this: When you see an elephant flying, don’t laugh, don’t doubt, don’t sneer — take notes. Something very new and important is happening and we need to understand it.

Last week, I saw an elephant fly: The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer — an authentic, lifelong supporter of Israel — gave a speech calling on Israelis to hold an election as soon as possible in order to dump Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right cabinet.

That was one big flying elephant. And it produced predictable responses from the Jewish right (Schumer is a traitor), from Netanyahu (Israel is “not a banana republic”) and from cynics (Schumer’s just cozying up to the Democratic left). All predictable responses, and all wrong responses.

The right response is a question: What has gone so haywire in the U.S.-Netanyahu relationship that it would drive someone as sincerely devoted to Israel’s well-being as Chuck Schumer to call on Israelis to replace Netanyahu — and have his speech, which was smart and sensitive, praised by President Biden himself as a “good speech” outlining concerns shared by “many Americans”?

Israelis and friends of Israel ignore that basic question at their peril.

The answer has to do with a profound shift in U.S. politics and geopolitics when it comes to the Middle East — a shift that the Gaza war exposed, and a shift that has made Netanyahu’s refusal to articulate any vision for Israeli-Palestinian relations based on two states for two people a threat to both Biden’s foreign policy goals and re-election chances.

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Before I explain why, I want to be very clear about one thing that Schumer and Biden have also made clear: The war in Gaza was forced on Israel by a vicious attack by Hamas on Israeli border communities, populated by the most dovish Israelis in the country’s political spectrum. If you are calling for a “cease-fire now” in Gaza and not a “cease-fire and hostage release now,” it’s making the problem worse. Because it just feeds Israelis’ fears that the world is against them, no matter what they do.

People protesting Israel’s war in Gaza and the many civilian casualties there also have a responsibility to call out Hamas — as Schumer did. It is a murderous organization that has brought death and destruction, and despair for the people of Gaza, and has done as much since the 1980s to destroy the possibility of a two-state solution as any actor in the region.

Back to the argument: Why has Netanyahu become such a problem for the U.S. and Biden geopolitically and politically?

The short answer is that America’s entire Middle East strategy right now — and, I would argue, Israel’s long-term interests — depends on Israel partnering with the non-Hamas Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah, in the West Bank, on the long-term development needs of Palestinians and, ultimately, on a two-state solution. And Netanyahu has expressly ruled that out, along with any other fully formed plan for the morning after in Gaza.

Why do Israel and the U.S. need a Palestinian partner and a vision for a two-state solution? I see six reasons — that’s a lot, but they all bear on Biden’s challenge and political fate:

1) No army has ever had to fight an enemy in such a dense urban environment that includes an estimated 350 to 450 miles of underground tunnels stretching from one end of the war zone to the other. As a result, such urban warfare was always going to cause many casualties among innocent civilians, even with the most careful of armies, let alone one enraged by the killing and kidnapping of so many children, parents and grandparents. For those Gaza civilians who survive, I’m sure that nothing could compensate for the loss of their children, parents and grandparents. But an expressed willingness by Israel to forge a new relationship between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank with non-Hamas-led Palestinians would at least give some hope to all sides that there would never be a round of bloodletting like this again.

2) This is the first big Israeli-Palestinian war fought in the age of TikTok. TikTok was designed for a war like this — 15-second videos of the worst human suffering, beamed out constantly. In the face of that media tsunami, Israel needed a clear message of commitment to a postwar peace process, heading toward two states. Israel had none. As a result, Israel is not only alienating many Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, Biden administration officials say, but it is also in danger of losing support among an entire generation of global youth (including part of the base of the Democratic Party).

3) This is not a war of “retaliation,” like all the previous Hamas-Israel wars — in which Israel punished Hamas for rocketing the country but then left it in power when the fighting was over. This war, by contrast, is aimed at destroying Hamas once and for all. Therefore, from the start, Israel needed to have an alternative conception of how Gaza could and should be legitimately governed by non-Hamas Palestinians — and no Palestinians are ever going to step up for that job without at least a legitimate two-state process.

4) Hamas’s attack was designed to halt Israel from becoming more embedded than ever in the Arab world thanks to the Abraham Accords and the budding normalization process with Saudi Arabia. Consequently, Israel’s response had to be designed to preserve those vital new relationships. That could be possible only if Israel was fighting Hamas in Gaza with one hand and actively pursuing two states with the other.

5) This war had a major regional component. Israel very quickly found itself fighting Hamas in Gaza and Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. The only way Israel could build a regional alliance — and enable President Biden to help line up regional allies — was if Israel was simultaneously pursuing a peace process with non-Hamas Palestinians. That is the necessary cement for a regional alliance against Iran. Without that cement, Biden’s grand strategy of building an alliance against Iran and Russia (and China) stretching from India through the Arabian Peninsula across North Africa and up to the European Union/NATO is stymied. No one wants to sign up to protect an Israel whose government is dominated by extremists who want to permanently occupy both the West Bank and Gaza.

Which is why Schumer said: “Nobody expects Prime Minister Netanyahu to do the things that must be done to break the cycle of violence, preserve Israel’s credibility on the world stage, and work toward a two-state solution,” while Schumer also called for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to step aside and make room for a new, better governing generation there as well.

6) The political scientist Gautam Mukunda, author of the book “Picking Presidents,” made this final, good point to me: “The rise of the progressive left and Netanyahu’s tacit alliance with Trump have weakened support for Israel among Democrats. If Israel fights a war in Gaza with many civilian casualties — but offers no political hope for a better future for both Israelis and Palestinians — over time it obscures people’s memories of the horrors of Oct. 7 and their support for Israel in its wake. That makes it increasingly difficult for even the most pro-Israel American figures — like Schumer — to continue to back the war in the face of the enormous international and domestic costs.”

For all of these reasons, and I cannot say this loudly enough, Israel has an overriding interest in pursuing a two-state horizon. And I cannot say this often enough. I don’t know if the Palestinian Authority can get its act together to be the government that Palestinians and Israelis need it to be; I just know everyone now has a huge interest in trying to make it so.

As such, I believe the Biden strategy will most likely unfold this way: Press as hard as possible on all the parties to get a cease-fire and another hostage release. That cessation of hostilities would then freeze any Israeli military plans for a full-scale invasion of Rafah to capture or kill Hamas leaders believed to be holed up there — an invasion that would very likely cause many more civilian casualties. (I assume the U.S. will urge Israel to use more targeted means.)

Then, use the cease-fire to come in with a big, fresh American-Arab-E.U. peace initiative that offers Israelis a breadth and depth of normalization with Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, and security guarantees, more than ever before, as the accompaniment to a two-state solution.

With that in hand, Biden could frame the choice for Israel’s next election: “Biden’s plan versus Bibi’s no-plan” — instead of Biden personally versus Netanyahu personally. Let Netanyahu choose between being remembered as the prime minister who presided over Oct. 7 or the prime minister who opened the road to Saudi Arabia.

The hour is growing late. There are a million moving parts, any one of which could fail. But this is my gut feeling for how the next phase of the Gaza conflict could play out and why Schumer’s speech was not just some personal rumination but a deep reflection of America’s best interests at this time — and, I believe, Israelis’ and Palestinians’ best interests as well.

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Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Opinion columnist. He joined the paper in 1981 and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award. @tomfriedman  Facebook

A version of this article appears in print on March 20, 2024, Section A, Page 17 of the New York edition with the headline: What Democrats Got Right About NetanyahuOrder Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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