Senate Republicans speak with Netanyahu, claim partisan split over supporting Israel

They're making Democrat Chuck Schumer's speech criticizing him a campaign issue.

March 20, 2024, 7:38 PM

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Senate Republicans for about 45 minutes Wednesday in a closed-door videoconference at their weekly lunch where he asserted Israel must have the freedom and time to complete its war with Hamas.

He spoke with the GOP lawmakers days after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called for Israel to hold a new election seen as a way to replace Netanyahu.

After the meeting, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said the prime minister expressed "commitment to completing the war and defeating Hamas," a U.S.-designated terrorist group.

"He was grateful for America's standing with Israel," Cruz said.

"It's an existential threat to them and they very much need the time and the space to be able to do that," Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Feb. 18, 2024, in Jerusalem.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters, FILE

Addressing Schumer's controversial remarks

The meeting comes as election year tensions on Capitol Hill and at the White House over Israel have mounted over what Republicans see as Schumer's call to replace the prime minister.

In a formal address on the Senate floor last week, Schumer delivered a scathing speech that was highly critical of Netanyahu, saying he is an "obstacle to peace" and that he has "lost his way" as Israel bombards Gaza amid a growing humanitarian crisis there.

"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. 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," Schumer said.

Netanyahu notably spoke only to Senate Republicans Wednesday, something GOP leaders were quick to note.

"We obviously have a lot in common," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters following the meeting with Netanyahu. "But it seems to me the bipartisan support for Israel seems to be cracking on the political left in this country."

Republicans, led McConnell, have sharply rebuked Schumer's remarks. McConnell has said calls for the election of a new leader in Israel are "grotesque" and "unprecedented."

Schumer's office confirmed to ABC News that Schumer declined a request from Netanyahu to virtually address the Senate Democratic caucus.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer departs from the Senate Chambers in the U.S. Capitol Building, March 14, 2024, in Washington.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

"Sen. Schumer made it clear that he does not think these discussions should happen in a partisan matter," a Schumer spokesperson said.

Though Schumer has asserted that relations with Israel ought to be bipartisan, Republicans have increasingly been using Schumer's comments to highlight what they see as a growing divide between the parties when it comes to supporting Israel.

Schumer is the highest-ranking Jewish official in the U.S. and has been a consistent supporter of Israel.

He reacted Wednesday afternoon after Netanyahu spoke with Senate Republicans.

"Let me say this: I care deeply about Israel and its long-term future. When you make the issue partisan, you hurt the cause of helping Israel," he told reporters.

He defended last week's speech and insisted he is not interfering in Israel's elections.

"Let me say this, I gave this speech out of a real love for Israel. And if you read the speech, we called only for there to be an election after the hostilities had declined, after Hamas was defeated," he said.

Netanyahu spoke with Senate Republicans upon the invitation of GOP Conference Chairman John Barrasso, who said after the meeting that Netanyahu "knows that the people on the Republican side of this aisle stand with the people of Israel."

"Chuck Schumer's attacks on Netanyahu and the government of Israel is an attack upon a democracy," he said.

Republicans in the room said they reaffirm their support for Netanyahu and Israel's right to elect its own leader, challenging Schumer's call for a new election.

"He made a presentation. We had questions and answers afterwards. I made it clear to him: it's not the business of the United States to be giving a democratically advice about when to have an election, or what kind of military campaign there may be conducted," McConnell said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a joint press conference with the German Chancellor after their meeting, March 17, 2024, in Jerusalem.
Leo Correa/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

According to Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Netanyahu did not initially address Schumer's controversial remarks, but responded to them after being asked directly by a senator in the room.

"He was very direct he said he thought that Sen. Schumer's remarks were wholly inappropriate and outrageous. And obviously he took deep offense," Hawley said.

Funding for Israel and next steps in the conflict

Netanyahu's comments to the Senate Republicans come after Biden and the prime minister have clashed over Israel's expected military invasion in Rafah.

Netanyahu has said a Rafah offensive is needed to help destroy Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, following their Oct. 7 attack that have led to months of conflict. In the Gaza Strip, more than 31,000 people have been killed by Israeli forces since Oct. 7, according to Gaza's Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health. In Israel, at least 1,200 people have been killed by Hamas and other Palestinian militants since Oct. 7, according to Israeli officials.

White House has said Biden has "deep concerns" Israel will not do enough to prevent civilian casualties as it goes after Hamas fighters in the city.

The Israeli military said that it plans to direct many of the displaced Palestinians living in Rafah toward "humanitarian islands" in the center of the territory ahead of any invasion.

In the latest development in a standoff between Biden and Netanyahu that's gone on for weeks -- with the U.S. demanding a satisfactory "plan" from Israel -- national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday that Netanyahu, at Biden's request, would be sending a delegation to Washington to try to work out what he called "an alternative approach."

Sullivan described their phone call at Monday's White House briefing.

"Each of them recognize that we are at a critical moment in this conflict," he said. "They share a common objective that is for Israel to prevail over Hamas, and they have a different perspective on this operation."

Senators in the room said Netanyahu made clear to them, as they say he has to Biden, his belief that an invasion of Rafah will be necessary.

"They need to finish the job. They need to take out Hamas," Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said.

Hawley said that Netanyahu told senators he had relayed to Biden that an operation in Rafah is "absolutely necessary" and that Israel "will be undertaking it." But he also said Netanyahu was "alert to the sensitivities" surrounding civilian casualties and "very mindful" of the issue, which he discussed at "some length."

"He talked about what they were trying to do to minimize that and the evidence says that they have been consistent with other attempts in the past to minimize it," Rounds added.