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The Obstacle Chuck Schumer Left Out of His Big Israel Speech

He cited four obstacles to peace, one of which was not the United States Congress. It’s changing now—but AIPAC is spending millions to make sure it doesn’t.

Chuck Schumer
Tierney L. Cross/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Two recent speeches in Congress, the first in the Senate, the second in the House, show the speed with which the Washington conversation has moved on Israel-Palestine, and the considerable distance that President Biden still has to go to catch up.

The first was from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who delivered a heartfelt and courageous speech on March 15 criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conduct of the war and calling for new Israeli elections that he hoped would replace Netanyahu and his extremist coalition with more responsible leadership. Quite notably, especially for such a pro-Israel stalwart like Schumer, by suggesting that the U.S. might have to “play a more active role in shaping Israeli policy by using our leverage,” the speech further opened the door to conditioning U.S. aid to Israel, a steadily crumbling taboo in many Democratic circles.

A week later, another New York Democrat gave a different but also courageous speech on the floor of the House. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez warned of the “unfolding genocide” caused by the Israeli military’s relentless, indiscriminate bombing of Gaza and its continued restricting of humanitarian aid. Citing President Biden’s own past words about the importance of acting against atrocities before it’s too late, she called on him to uphold U.S. law and suspend military aid to Israel in the face of a looming famine and mass starvation in Gaza.

The two speeches illustrated not only the range of views in today’s Democratic Party, but the remarkable extent to which the window has shifted. Schumer’s speech was in some ways a wistful throwback to a liberal Zionist vision of the past. Ocasio-Cortez’s confronted the hard-line Greater Israel reality of the present. Much of what Schumer said would have been unthinkably radical on the floor of the Senate 10 years ago. Today it represents the rightward edge of the party.

Still, one element of Schumer’s speech is worth raising here, not only for what it said but for what he left out. “Right now, there are four major obstacles standing in the way of two states, and until they are removed from the equation, there will never be peace in Israel and Gaza and the West Bank,” Schumer said. “Those four major obstacles are: 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.”

He could’ve added one more obstacle: The United States Congress. The recently passed spending bill, which the president signed last Saturday, is a great example of the destructive role Congress has played in this area. Not only does it block funding for the largest aid provider to Palestinians, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, based on as-yet unproven allegations that a few UNRWA employees took part in the October 7 attacks, but it includes a number of other long-standing anti-Palestinian measures like limiting aid to the Palestinian Authority if the Palestinians initiate or support an International Criminal Court investigation against Israel for human rights violations, or seek to upgrade their status at the United Nations or in other international fora. That is, it punishes the Palestinians for engaging in nonviolent diplomacy.

Congress has been the key player in the Catch-22 in which the Palestinians have been trapped: Violent resistance is unacceptable. Nonviolent resistance is also unacceptable. The only acceptable path to liberation is to negotiate with an Israeli government that is fundamentally opposed to granting it and is continually protected by the U.S. Congress from any consequences for that opposition.

Indeed, Congress has even protected the Israeli government from pressure from U.S. presidents. When President Obama attempted in 2011 to reiterate support for a two-state solution along the 1967 lines, a position consistent with both international law and past U.S. administrations, he was attacked not just by Netanyahu and Republicans but by then–Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. And Schumer notoriously sided with Netanyahu against Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran. It’s safe to assume that Congress’s opposition to applying any meaningful pressure on Israel killed any number of other regional diplomatic initiatives before they were even tried.

Polls have shown for years that more and more Democrats, now a majority, favor a more even-handed U.S. approach to Israel-Palestine. Congress is always the last to find out, but both Schumer’s and Ocasio-Cortez’s speeches are evidence that this is finally changing. And the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and its partner groups would very much like it not to change, which is why they’ve launched a multimillion-dollar effort, much of it provided by conservative Republican donors, to intervene in Democratic primaries against progressives.

On the one hand, it’s clarifying that AIPAC is admitting what it takes to sustain an Israel-can-do-no-wrong majority in Congress: tens of millions of dollars. At long last, we’re finally having an honest conversation about that. But it’s also worth noting that AIPAC is literally buying time here. They may slow the shift in the party, driven by its progressive wing and by Israel’s own behavior, but they won’t stop it.

What they could do though is depress Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts by knocking off progressive champions. Serious Democrats should be concerned about this. The danger is not just that a lot of these Democrats, already outraged by Biden’s Gaza policy, won’t vote in the general. It’s that they won’t get the vote out. They won’t do the phone banking, canvassing, door knocking, and volunteering that will be necessary to maximize turnout. If this election comes down to a few hundred thousand votes in a few key states, as it almost certainly will, this could make the difference. It will have impacts down the ticket as well, determining control of the House and Senate. 

We should all understand the stakes of November’s election. There is no plausible argument that a Trump victory would or could produce better progressive outcomes than a Biden reelection, even in the longer term. Certainly not in Israel-Palestine. But for many progressive voters, withholding their votes is the last protest they feel is available in response to a president who they feel simply refuses to hear them. 

The debate over Gaza has become a proxy for a larger debate about America’s role in the world, and about the future of the Democratic Party. Biden and Schumer represent an old-guard view, forged during the Cold War and the unipolar post–Cold War era, in which the United States pursued global hegemony with little regard for the impact of that pursuit on the world’s least powerful communities. Lockstep support for Israel was reflective of this old approach. Younger Democrats have far less interest in the maintenance of American dominance. They are done with engaging with the world primarily through the use and supply of deadly weapons. They are tired of their government upholding a blatant double standard on human rights, and then gaslighting them about that double standard. 

No one is asking Biden to withdraw all support for Israel—not Schumer, not AOC, not anyone. It’s appropriate to help ensure that another October 7 never happens. The strong solidarity Biden showed with Israel’s people in the wake of October 7 was important, inspiring, and admirable. But it clearly would have been better if he’d moved more quickly to parlay that solidarity into meaningful influence on its military campaign. While he continues to talk about the need to avoid civilian casualties, he won’t do anything about it. Monday’s decision not to block a cease-fire resolution from the U.N. Security Council was a long-overdue step in the right direction, but the administration then undermined its impact by inexplicably and incorrectly characterizing the resolution as “nonbinding.” The chasmic disconnect between this president’s words and deeds is part of what rankles. If he wants to repair the damage, if it can be repaired, he’s going to have to find a way to bridge that gap.  

The answer is not to scream at these voters about the danger of Trump, which is obviously real. Biden has a responsibility here too—both to those who helped put him in office and to the human rights principles he ran on. He is falling far short on both right now. He has a strong story to tell about his presidency, which boasts some genuinely extraordinary accomplishments that are now being overshadowed by the Gaza catastrophe he is helping inflict.

He needs to show that he understands the stakes, and that he cannot keep showing such disregard for a growing Democratic constituency and the human rights principles he claims to share and then expect to scare his way to reelection just by saying his opponent is worse. The two moving speeches from the New York congressional delegation should serve as a wake-up call. Thousands of Palestinian lives, and potentially the future of American democracy, depend upon the president heeding it.