How Biden, circa 1992, would respond to Schumer of 2024

“What makes us think,” the US senator said with passion, “that we can publicly vilify a nation, and think that any leader will say, ‘Now I will yield before the world and God because I have been told. What in the hell do we think we’re doing?’”

The senator was a Democrat from Delaware: Joe Biden. And the president was a Republican: George H.W. Bush.

These words were spoken exactly 22 years ago, in March of 1992 – an election year both in Israel and America – as Biden was addressing an AIPAC conference at the height of Israel-US tension over settlement building and the $10 billion in loan guarantees that the Jewish state had requested from the US to house the massive influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Forward reporter Jacob Kornbluth posted a two-minute clip of that speech on X on Friday, the day after Senator Chuck Schumer blasted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Senate, declaring him one of four major obstacles to Middle East peace and calling for new elections in Israel.

The contrast between what Biden said then and his reaction to Schumer’s speech is glaring. Granted, 1992 was a long time ago, but it is still of interest to hear how Biden sounded then when a president was publicly scolding Israel, compared to his tone today.

Majority Leader of the US Senate Chuck Schumer (left) with President Isaac Herzog. October 15, 2023 (credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)

“He made a good speech, and I think he expressed a serious concern shared not only by him but by many Americans,” Biden said Friday of the Democratic majority leader’s bombshell speech.

Thirty-two years ago, however, he thought very differently about taking such a tough tone with Israel and to so publicly disagree with the Israeli government.

“The absurd notion that publicly vilifying Israel will somehow change its policy – who in the hell do we think we’re dealing with?” Biden declared in that 1992 AIPAC speech.

He continued: “What is the purpose? Do you think that in the middle of a reelection campaign, [then-prime minister] Yitzhak Shamir will say ‘mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa?’”

The same could be asked of Schumer: Does he think that as a result of his speech, Netanyahu will stand up and say, “You know what, Chuck? You’re right. It’s time to pack it all in.”

Netanyahu responds to Schumer’s comments on CNN

ON THE CONTRARY, Netanyahu hit back on Sunday in a CNN interview. Instead of saying “mea maxima culpa,” he slammed Schumer’s words as “totally inappropriate.”

“It’s inappropriate to go to a sister democracy and try to replace the elected leadership there,” the prime minister said. “That’s something the Israeli public does on its own. We are not a banana republic. I think the only government we should work to bring down now is the terrorist tyranny in Gaza.”

Biden, model 1992, might have agreed with Netanyahu, though Biden circa 2024 does not – and it is hard to believe that Schumer would have given such a speech without getting a green light from the White House.

Back in 1992, Bush wanted to condition housing guarantees on Shamir’s agreement to stem settlement construction and enter into a peace conference with Palestinians: the Madrid Peace Conference.

 On September 12, 1991, Bush gave a press conference in which he infuriated the pro-Israel community by saying that he was just “one little guy down here” having to fend off “1,000 lobbyists up on the Hill today lobbying Congress for loan guarantees for Israel.”

A Washington Post feature on AIPAC in 2006 quoted one American Jewish leader as saying that Bush’s comment “clobbered the Jewish community; left us in a state of shock.”

At the AIPAC conference Biden spoke at in 1992, the director of the organization at the time, Tom Dine, kicked off the gathering with a reference to Bush’s comments. “September 12, 1991, will be a day that lives in infamy for the American pro-Israel community. Like an Indian elephant, we don’t forget.”

It was a pivotal moment. Schumer’s speech may be a similar critical juncture, the moment when the perception is created that Israel is no longer a bipartisan issue, but rather that there is one party that supports Israel (the Republicans) and one party that does not (the Democrats).

Key Republican figures tried their hardest after Schumer’s speech to cement that perception. For instance, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took the Senate floor after his Democratic counterpart’s speech and said, “It is grotesque and hypocritical for Americans who hyperventilate about foreign interference in our own democracy to call for the removal of the democratically elected leader of Israel.”

And House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul said on Fox News Sunday that Schumer’s speech was indicative of a split in the Democratic Party with a “base which is not in the traditional Israeli alliance anymore. And I think what you’re seeing is a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel faction in the Democratic Party.”

IRONICALLY, and perhaps something that can serve as a cautionary tale, the Shamir-Bush brush-up did not end overly well for either man. Shamir lost to Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, with the settlement/loan guarantee issue – as well as concern that Israel was losing American support – a factor in the elections.

But Bush also lost his election that year to Bill Clinton, with some arguing that although his tangling with Shamir was not one of the determining factors in the election, it did not help him at the polls either.

Bush’s support among Jewish voters plummeted from 35% in 1988 when he defeated Michael Dukakis, to just 11% in 1992, the lowest percentage for a Republican since Barry Goldwater in 1964.

According to The Washington Post, Bush “got crushed in a small group of heavily Jewish precincts in states such as New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and Nevada.”

The loss in those districts did not cost Bush the election, since Clinton won by a wide margin. But in a close election, as the 2024 one is expected to be, losing in heavily Jewish precincts in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, and Florida – and there are heavily Jewish precincts in each of those states – could make a difference.

Schumer, like the messaging coming from the White House, sought to differentiate in his speech between Netanyahu, his government, and the Israeli people.

The question is whether the American Jewish community will see the New York senator’s words about Netanyahu as just a swipe at the prime minister, or as a gratuitous attack on the Israeli government at a time when it is engaged in a war of survival that has also unleashed a wave of antisemitism in the US and around the world.

Schumer is gambling on the former. But if he is wrong, and his words are viewed as a cheap shot at a time of war, then his speech could prove to be a watershed – not only in marking when Israel fully became a partisan issue but also in impacting the outcome of the US election.

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