U.S. Patience With Netanyahu Is Running Out

8 minute read

It’s never been a secret: many Democrats despise Benjamin Netanyahu. But with Israel’s military campaign to destroy Hamas producing a humanitarian catastrophe and tens of thousands of civilian deaths, Democratic leaders are taking a gloves-off approach toward the Israeli Prime Minister who refuses to change course in Gaza: calling for the end of his reign of power.

After his State of the Union address, President Joe Biden was caught on a hot mic saying he was going to have a “come-to-Jesus” meeting with Netanyahu over the Israeli offensive. Vice President Kamala Harris recently hosted Netanyahu’s chief political rival, Benny Gantz, at the White House, signaling the administration’s mounting frustration with the Israeli leader. But the capstone of Democrats’ exasperation has come from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, one of Israel’s fiercest defenders in Washington, said it was time for Israelis to vote Netanyahu out.

“I believe a new election is the only way to allow for a healthy and open decision-making process about the future of Israel,” said Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish official in the U.S., in a speech on the Senate floor. Netanyahu, he said, “has lost his way by allowing his political survival to take precedence over the best interests of Israel.”

Schumer’s speech marks a turning point in the Democrats’ indignation with the Israeli premier, leading to the unusual spectacle of a senior American lawmaker all but calling for the removal of an allied nation’s leader in the midst of a U.S.-backed war. “You see the role reversal here,” says Aaron David Miller, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator for Democratic and Republican administrations. “You’ve got Congress, the traditional bastion of support for Israel, speaking louder than the administration that purports to be angry at Netanyahu.”

Read More: Inside the Israel-Hamas Information War

The situation reflects the limits of Biden’s willingness to curtail the Israeli offensive. Previous presidents have inflicted material costs on Israel when its actions ran afoul of U.S. policy interests. Ronald Reagan delayed the delivery of F16 warplanes to Israel in 1981 after it bombed the Palestinian Liberation Organization headquarters in Beirut. George H.W. Bush withheld loan guarantees to Israel to halt settlement construction in the West Bank. Biden has eschewed conditioning or limiting military aid to Israel; the U.S. currently allocates $3.8 billion a year in Israeli military assistance, and the White House recently asked Congress to approve $14 billion more in supplemental aid.

For that, he’s paid a political price. Over the last five months, progressives have revolted against Biden for supporting Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, leading to the lowest approval ratings of his presidency. In states with large Arab-American populations, such as Michigan, Democratic primary voters have cast protest votes for “uncommitted.” In an attempt to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, the Administration recently began airdropping aid into Gaza and is building a floating pier in the Mediterranean Sea to deliver more assistance to the war-ravaged coastal enclave. Now, Democrats are trying to amplify the message that they support Israel’s security, especially after suffering the worst terrorist attack in its history, but not Netanyahu’s leadership or his stewardship of the war effort.

“The Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after October 7,” Schumer said on Thursday. “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.”

The backlash to Schumer’s unusually pointed speech was swift. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called his remarks “grotesque.” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, said they were “way out of line” and “very inappropriate.” That sentiment was echoed in Tel Aviv. Schumer should "refrain from undermining the Israeli government," Netanyahu's Likud party said. "Israel is not a banana republic.”

The White House kept its distance from Schumer’s remarks. “We fully respect his right to say those remarks and decide for himself what he’s going to say on the Senate floor,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Thursday. Asked if the Biden administration thinks Israel should hold elections, Kirby said “That’s up to the Israelis.” (Schumer gave the White House “a heads up” before his speech, his office tells TIME.)

Private tensions between Biden and Netanyahu over the conduct of Israel’s war in Gaza after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas have increasingly spilled into public view in recent weeks. After months of U.S. efforts to rein in the Israeli prime minister behind the scenes, Biden has publicly warned against an Israeli military operation on the southern city of Rafah in Gaza, calling it a “red line.” He has also reportedly signaled that he could attach conditions to U.S. military aid if Israel does not take steps to protect civilians. “You cannot have 30,000 more Palestinians dead,” the President told MSNBC in an interview on March 7. Biden used the spotlight of his State of the Union address to pressure the Israeli government to allow increased humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip and to pursue a two-state solution once the war is over. 

For his part, Netanyahu has publicly vowed to defy the White House’s warnings and stressed that he intends to press ahead with plans to invade Rafah to root out Hamas. “We’ll go there,” he told German publisher Axel Springer on March 10. “You know, I have a red line. You know what the red line is? That October 7 doesn’t happen again.”

The result has been a jarring split-screen, with a growing number of senior U.S. officials, from intelligence agencies to Capitol Hill, publicly airing their concerns about Netanyahu’s ability to remain in power while the White House continues to arm the country he leads and support its war in Gaza. 

Read More: For Antony Blinken, the War in Gaza Is a Test of U.S. Power

Days before Schumer’s speech, a new U.S. intelligence report surfaced an unusually blunt assessment: Netanyahu’s “viability as a leader” as well that of his governing coalition “may be in jeopardy.” U.S. spy agencies highlighted that “distrust of Netanyahu’s ability to rule has deepened and broadened across the public from its already high levels before the war,” and said they expect mass protests calling for the prime minister’s resignation and new elections in Israel. “A different, more moderate government is a possibility,” U.S. intelligence officials concluded. 

The annual intelligence assessment also provided a glimpse into the internal discussions and concerns inside U.S. intelligence agencies as the war stretches into its sixth month. “While it is too early to tell, it is likely that the Gaza conflict will have a generational impact on terrorism,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers on Monday. U.S. agencies also noted that Israel would struggle to achieve its goal of completely eradicating the terrorist group and will “face lingering armed resistance from Hamas for years to come.” 

Read More: U.S. Intel Chiefs Warn of Threats To “Increasingly Fragile World Order”

On Monday, a group of Senate Democrats demanded that Biden halt the sale and transfer of weapons to Israel, accusing Netanyahu’s government of violating the Foreign Assistance Act by blocking humanitarian aid to Gaza. “The United States should not provide military assistance to any country that interferes with U.S. humanitarian assistance,” the group wrote in a letter to the President. “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.”

In the face of the backlash against his comments, Schumer on Thursday afternoon seemed to strike a more moderate tone. “The U.S. cannot dictate the outcome of an election,” he said on X. “That is for the Israeli public to decide. As a democracy, Israel has the right to choose its own leaders.”

The hedge may also come from Schumer’s recognition that a standoff with Democrats could only help Netanyahu hold onto power. “From where I’m sitting, the Democrats seem doggedly committed to handing Bibi his reelection campaign,” tweeted Haviv Rettig Gur, a veteran Israeli journalist for The Times of Israel. “If you make him the hero standing up to American pressure on Israel/waffling on Hamas, you give him his one chance for political survival.” 

But Democrats’ tussle with Israel has so far amounted to little more than a war of words. And no matter how pointed and public the criticism from senior American leaders, Biden has yet to withdraw any material support from Israel over the escalating civilian tragedy in Gaza. 

“I think the administration has run out of trust and or confidence in this Israeli government,” says Miller. “But if the noise is so large, the frustration is so great, the anger is so intense—why haven't they imposed costs or consequences on the Israelis?  Why have they left it to Schumer, or a hot mic moment, or the vice president?”

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Write to Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com