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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS: 15 MARCH 2024

US Senate leader Schumer calls for Netanyahu’s exit; Palestinian president names new prime minister

US Senate leader Schumer calls for Netanyahu’s exit; Palestinian president names new prime minister
US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. (Photo: Tierney L Cross / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the US, has called for new Israeli elections and the replacement of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appointed the chairperson of the Palestine Investment Fund to form a new government that will seek to rebuild the Gaza Strip when the Israel-Hamas war ends, according to his office.

The Biden administration sanctioned two Israeli settlements in the West Bank on Thursday and called on the country to do more to end violence against Palestinians there, as tensions continued between the two governments over the war in the Gaza Strip.

Schumer calls for Netanyahu’s exit as Democrats’ Gaza worries grow

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer reached his breaking point on Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 159 days into the Israel-Hamas war.

Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the US, called for new Israeli elections and the replacement of Netanyahu, an extraordinary public rebuke that reflects a wrenching reexamination of close bonds with Israel that the Gaza conflict has provoked among Democrats.

“I believe a new election is the only way to allow for a healthy and open decision-making process about the future of Israel,” Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor. Netanyahu, he said, “has lost his way” and become beholden to right-wing extremists.

Schumer has been a key ally of Israel in Congress for decades. But the Gaza conflict’s toll on Palestinian civilians has opened a schism in the Democratic coalition with ramifications for the November US elections. A backlash against President Joe Biden’s support of the war threatens to cost Democrats votes in key battleground states like Michigan.

Schumer has urged Israel many times to do more to avoid civilian casualties and allow aid to flow more freely to hungry Gaza residents.

Though Schumer said it’s up to Israelis to choose their leaders, he said the Netanyahu coalition “no longer fits the needs of Israel” and the Israeli leader had made “a grave mistake” by rejecting an eventual two-state solution to the conflict.

“The bitter reality is that a single state controlled by Israel, which they advocate, guarantees certain war forever,” Schumer said.

Republicans accused Schumer of inappropriate interference with a key US ally.

“It’s just plain wrong for an American leader to play such a divisive role in Israeli politics, while our closest ally in the region is in an existential battle for its very survival,” House Speaker Mike Johnson said at a Republican retreat in West Virginia.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, said it was “grotesque and hypocritical for Americans who hyperventilate about foreign interference in our own democracy to call for the removal of a democratically elected leader of Israel”.

Schumer’s comments satisfied progressive Democrats, but they also triggered condemnation across the Israeli political spectrum, even among Netanyahu’s rivals, as inappropriate.

Schumer also declared that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas must step down and the Palestinian people must reject Hamas.

Mahmoud Abbas names Palestine investment fund chief to form government

Abbas appointed the chairperson of the Palestine Investment Fund to form a new government that will seek to rebuild the Gaza Strip when the Israel-Hamas war ends, according to his office.

The appointment of Mohammed Mustafa as prime minister was announced weeks after the former premier, Mohammad Shtayyeh, tendered his administration’s resignation. Mustafa has three weeks to assemble a government, with the possibility of a two-week extension if needed, according to the Palestinian Constitution.

The announcement comes as the US and countries in the Middle East have been pushing for a reformed Palestinian Authority (PA), which could receive additional powers as Hamas, which runs Gaza, is weakened by Israel’s response to the 7 October attack by the militant group.

Mustafa is a longtime member of Abbas’s inner circle so the choice may fall short of urgings by critics for a new generation of leaders to revamp the Palestinian Authority.

The authority, which controls swathes of the West Bank, is trying to position itself to take on a larger role in the governance of Gaza once the war ends. While Washington supports greater Palestinian Authority control in Gaza, Israel has publicly opposed it.

This will be the 19th government since the founding of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. Hamas, which is designated a terrorist organisation by the United States and European Union, has controlled Gaza since it unseated the authority there in 2007 in a violent coup.

Mustafa, an economist, has chaired the Palestine Investment Fund for the past nine years and formerly served as its chief executive officer. From 2013 until 2015, he served as the deputy prime minister of the PA.

US sanctions Israel’s West Bank settlers as Gaza tensions grow

The Biden administration sanctioned two Israeli settlements in the West Bank on Thursday and called on the country to do more to end violence against Palestinians there, as tensions continue between the two governments over the war in the Gaza Strip.

The State Department imposed penalties on two illegal outposts that have been used as bases to launch attacks against Palestinians, as well as three Israelis for “perpetuating violence and causing turmoil in the West Bank”.

It was the second time the administration has imposed sanctions on Israeli settlers in the West Bank, after Biden granted the department additional authorities in February.

“It is critical that Israel take additional action to stop settler violence and hold accountable those responsible for it — not just for the sake of the victims of this violence, but for Israel’s own security and standing in the world,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told a briefing.

US officials have repeatedly called on Netanyahu’s government to rein in extremist settlers in the West Bank since the Hamas incursion into Israel on 7 October killed about 1,200 Israelis and led to the capture of about 250 more, sparking the current Israel-Hamas war. Netanyahu’s coalition government has significant support among settlers who want to annex the West Bank. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War

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