Democratic anger over Israel reaches new heights

Democratic anger over Israel reaches new heights

Correction: Comments from Jonathan Ruhe, director of foreign policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), were misattributed in a previous version of this article.

Democratic anger over Israel’s war in Gaza reached a new level Thursday with a dramatic speech from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on the Senate floor.

Although he didn’t call for a cease-fire, America’s top Jewish leader opened a new broadside against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the war still raging, calling for new elections in Israel and criticizing Netanyahu as “losing his way” and “too willing to tolerate the civilian toll in Gaza.”

“As a lifelong supporter of Israel, it has become clear to me: The Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after Oct. 7,” Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor, accusing Netanyahu of fighting on in Gaza for his political survival.

The speech comes as the party grows increasingly concerned about the impact of the war on the 2024 election and as Democrats — particularly on the left — express growing fury over the war’s civilian toll.

Some 31,000 Palestinians have been killed amid Israel’s push to destroy Hamas for a deadly Oct. 7 attack that killed more than 1,100 in southern Israel and took another 250 hostages, with about 100 still held alive by Hamas in Gaza.

President Biden has expressed growing frustration with Israeli leadership and has ramped up efforts to increase humanitarian aid in Gaza, calling Israel’s military campaign “over the top” and accusing its leaders of using humanitarian aid as a “bargaining chip.”

But Schumer’s speech and Biden’s efforts are unlikely to blunt criticism from the left or heal the fractures among Democrats, with critics saying anything short of a cease-fire won’t address the spiraling situation on the ground.

“The Biden administration and the establishment Democrats like Schumer … they’re saying they’re so fed up with Netanyahu, yet they’re providing all the tools he needs to stay in power, providing all the tools he needs to continue the war,” said Tariq Kenney-Shawa, a U.S. policy fellow at the Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka. “The war allows him to stay in power.”

But Jonathan Ruhe, director of foreign policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), said the Biden administration is “moving in the right direction” by supporting Israel while facilitating more aid into Gaza.

Still, Ruhe was also critical of Schumer’s remarks — which Biden said were “good” on Friday — arguing it was “counterproductive” to a strong partnership.

“The administration’s criticism that Israel is not showing proper regard for minimizing civilian suffering in Gaza, I think, is misguided,” he said. “The best way to minimize civilian suffering is to ensure that Israel can end this war completely and successfully and as quickly as possible.”

A permanent cease-fire remains off the table for most Democrats, even with the staggering death toll and the United Nations warning of a coming famine.

Biden remains firm in backing Israel at the same time as he’s trying everything he can to get more aid into Gaza — short of calling for a cease-fire or placing conditions on weapons for Israel.

The plight in Gaza continues to spiral. A late February scramble for aid in Gaza City left more than 100 people dead, while another 20 died in a similar rush for aid this week.

Biden last week launched the effort to construct a pier off the coast of Gaza to deliver up 2 million meals a day to the besieged territory once it comes online.

The U.S. military is also conducting airdrops with critical necessities like food, medicine and water, but those are criticized as a drop in the bucket for needed relief and that they come with a high cost after delivery drops reportedly killed five people last week.

Overall, critics say the efforts are not nearly enough to help Palestinians and are no substitute for land crossings and a cease-fire.

“They’re worse than band-aids,” said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, saying the aid push “highlights the weakness of this administration in the face of an intransigent Israeli government that is creating deliberately a humanitarian catastrophe. “

“So instead of just saying this is wrong, we won’t stand for it, they find backdoors and ways to circumvent Israeli intransigence,” he added, “and I think that’s reckless and irresponsible and will only fuel the intransigence.”

Ruhe, from JINSA, agreed the airdrops were not as effective but backed the idea for a port. His organization has also called for an independent group of vetted officials from Arab nations to be deployed into Gaza to facilitate more aid.

Army ships loaded with materials are already on the way to the eastern Mediterranean Sea to build the pier. The Pentagon said the construction will require 1,000 troops and take up to two months to build.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is among the humanitarian aid groups calling for a cease-fire and maintaining the pier is not enough to address the crisis.

IRC Senior Vice President of International Programs Ciarán Donnelly said in a Wednesday press briefing that he has “more questions than answers” about the pier, including how aid will move from the sea to the land and whether there is infrastructure on the ground to facilitate delivery.

He added the group has seen “no indication” it will be a “meaningful effort.”

“The real solution to delivering sufficient volumes of aid to people in Gaza is to stop the fighting,” Donnelly said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a briefing this week that the maritime corridor is just one part of a larger effort, saying it was not a substitute but a “complement” that will “help close the gap.”

When asked if the Biden administration’s efforts to facilitate more humanitarian aid while supplying weapons to Israel were two goals in conflict, he demurred.

“These two objectives are not in conflict.  The question is whether Israel, on the one hand, can effectively deal with its security needs in defending the country, while at the same time maximizing every possible effort to ensure that civilians are not harmed and that assistance gets to those who need it,” Blinken said.

Only limited amounts of aid are entering Gaza through two land crossings at the border, in the city of Rafah bordering Egypt and in the north at Kerem Shalom bordering Israel.

The IRC said 2,300 trucks entered Gaza through land crossings in February, which is about 80 trucks per day — compared to 500 trucks each day before the war.

CIA Director Bill Burns told a Senate committee this week that a cease-fire is the best solution to the humanitarian crisis, though he noted he supports the administration’s stance on the war.

“It’s very difficult to distribute humanitarian assistance effectively unless you have a cease-fire,” Burns said.

The potential political consequences of Biden’s support for Israel have come into as he has faced a large protest vote in primaries in Michigan and Minnesota, which both have large Muslim populations.

Yet Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at the Arab Center, said the president doesn’t appear any closer to calling for a cease-fire or pressuring Israel to end the war.

“As far as I’m concerned. I look at [Biden’s criticism] as just simply linguistic acrobatics,” Harb said. “It’s not necessarily actionable, because the administration has had over five months of occasions to act on what’s going on. And I don’t think that the President has arrived there yet.”

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