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Netanyahu addresses Senate Republicans days after Schumer calls for his ouster

Netanyahu addresses Senate Republicans days after Schumer calls for his ouster
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu virtually addressed Republican senators in Washington on Wednesday, days after the chamber’s majority leader, Democrat Chuck Schumer, called him an impediment to peace in an unsparing floor speech.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell told reporters, shortly after leaving the Senate Republicans’ policy lunch, that Netanyahu joined the gathering via video link, delivered a presentation, and answered questions.

Related: Netanyahu ‘determined’ to carry out Rafah assault despite pleas from Biden

“We asked him for an update and we got it on the war, on the release of the hostages and in the efforts to defeat Hamas,” senator John Barrasso, a Republican of Wyoming who invited Netanyahu to speak at the party’s closed-door lunch, told reporters after the meeting. “We told him Israel has every right to defend themselves and he said that’s exactly what they continue to do.”

McConnell said Netanyahu called him last week and asked for an opportunity to address the members of his conference and he accepted. Netanyahu asked to address Senate Democrats at their caucus lunch on Wednesday as well, but Schumer indicated that he had declined.

“When you make these issues partisan, you hurt the cause of Israel,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill.

The dueling responses underscores the increasingly partisan divide over the US’s support for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza that has killed more than 31,000 Palestinians and pushed the population to the brink of famine.

Mike Johnson, the Republican House speaker, said in a press conference on Wednesday that he was considering a request to invite Netanyahu to address Congress.

“I think it’s very important for us to show solidarity and support for Israel right now in their time of great struggle, and we certainly stand for that position and we’ll try to advance that in every way that we can,” he said. He added that he and Netanyahu held a “lengthy” conversation on Wednesday morning in which he told the prime minister that Schumer’s speech last week was “foolhardy” and “dangerous”.

Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish official in American history, has faced intense blowback from Republicans and Israeli political leaders in recent days over his Senate floor speech, in which he said that Netanyahu had “lost his way” five months into a war that began when Hamas led a cross-border attack, killing roughly 1,200 people and taking another 250 hostage.

Referring to Netanyahu by his nickname, McConnell said Democrats “don’t have an anti-Bibi problem. They have an anti-Israel problem.”

“It’s absurd enough for American senators to masquerade as duly elected members of the Knesset – as if their views should have any bearing on how Israel conducts its domestic politics,” McConnell said in a Wednesday floor speech.

Schumer dismissed Republicans’ critique that his remarks amounted to “foreign interference” and was an attempt to “strong-arm” an ally for domestic political gain.

“I gave this speech out of a real love for Israel,” the Democrat said. He has expressed concern that the conduct of Netanyahu and his far-right governing partners risk turning Israel into an international “pariah”.

Israel has long enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress. But in recent years, Democrats have become increasingly critical of Netanyahu, who has, over the course of several US presidencies, aligned himself closely with Republicans.

Tensions between Netanyahu and Joe Biden over Israel’s prosecution of the war in Gaza have burst into public view, with Biden endorsing Schumer’s speech and warning against a full-scale invasion of the southern city of Rafah, where more than half of Gaza’s surviving population is sheltering. Yet Netanyahu has pledged to move ahead with the offensive, in defiance of Biden’s “red line”.

The two leaders spoke by phone on Monday for the first time in more than a month.

The US is pushing for a temporary ceasefire in exchange for the release of the Israeli hostages and time to allow aid groups to rush badly needed food and medicine into the besieged territory.

Several top Democratic lawmakers and their supporters are urging the president to use more leverage to pressure Israel to change course.

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