Sen. Van Hollen’s Israel Record


I’ve long been a serious Chris Van Hollen fan.

In my professional capacity, I assisted an independent expenditure campaign that helped him win his Senate primary. I even wrote a blurb for a book about Van Hollen where I labeled him a “visionary politician” who “put people, passion, and principle back at the center of our politics.”

Not long ago, Sen. Van Hollen was a proud supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship and even now regularly condemns Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, recognizes Israel’s right to exist and affirms its duty to defend itself. Though these are indeed vital principles, agreement with them is necessary, but not sufficient.

Today, Sen. Van Hollen seems more interested in driving wedges between the U.S. and Israel than in strengthening the alliance.

I hope he’ll return to the pro-Israel community, but notwithstanding my pro-Van Hollen bias, an objective look at his recent record can only lead me to agree with 80 Maryland rabbis of all denominations and the Washington Jewish Week in being “aghast” at the senator’s “offensive” and “relentless attacks against Israel.”

A cursory review of press releases featured on his website reveals a serious absence of balance. Since Oct. 7, Sen. Van Hollen has issued nearly 30 statements whose primary subject was attacking Israel and just three whose primary subject was condemning Hamas.

It’s not just the unbalanced numbers. Their content also reveals his bias.

In September, before Hamas’ attack, when not a single Israeli soldier was in Gaza, Sen. Van Hollen was working to block an effort to ease travel between the U.S. and Israel.

It’s not a central strategic issue, but in some ways that makes his attitude more telling.

The U.S. had been working toward Israeli participation in our visa waiver program for over a decade. One appropriate requirement for participation is equal treatment of Palestinian Americans and other U.S. citizens.

The U.S. set up a test to determine whether Israel complied with our requirements and found it did.

Despite the test results, Sen. Van Hollen helped organize a letter to the Biden administration asserting that Israel should not be admitted to the program as “it is clear that Israel is not in compliance.” The administration replied that, having done the experiment, Secretaries Antony Blinken and Alejandro Mayorkas drew the opposite conclusion.

The senator’s baseless and gratuitous effort to make life difficult for travelers between the countries suggests the lengths he’ll now go to disrupt the relationship.

Since Oct. 7, it’s gotten worse.

Consider his bellicose vocabulary. Accusing Israel of a what he called a “textbook war crime” on the Senate floor reflects hostility. That’s especially true when the facts underlying his claim are seriously disputed.

Van Hollen maintained, “Kids in Gaza are now dying from the deliberate withholding of food.” Deliberate withholding of food? Outrageous. Did Van Hollen articulate, or even request, Israel’s side of the story? Not at all.

In fact, Israeli officials strongly disagreed: “Israel has excess capacity at its crossings for as much food, water, medicine, and shelter equipment as international donors want to send … Countries that want more aid to enter Gaza should send more. And they should replace UNRWA with experienced aid agencies that will do their jobs instead of covering up for Hamas.”

It’s one thing to urge Israel to make greater efforts to bring food to Gaza — a humanitarian goal we all share. It is quite another to allege Israel is purposely starving children to death without solid, objective evidence and without even a nod to Israel’s side of the story.

The senator’s attacks on the Biden administration’s pro-Israel actions are similarly incendiary and fact free.

For example, Van Hollen upbraided the administration for deciding Israel was complying with U.S. law and the law of war. Again, he thought he knew differently.

Yet, American and British experts who visited Israel and Gaza agree with the administration’s assessment. John Spencer, chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point, went further after visits to the frontlines: “The sole reason for civilian deaths in Gaza is Hamas. For Israel’s part, it’s taken more care to prevent them than any other army in human history.”

Sen. Van Hollen pays these experts no heed.

He’s so sure Israel is violating the law that he’s demanding military aid to Israel be suspended in the midst of attacks by Iran and a war that Hamas started.

Sen. Van Hollen committed sins of omission as well. Like all of us, he wants to end hostilities. As Secretary of State Blinken pointed out, the quickest way to achieve that goal is for Hamas to surrender its leaders, its weapons and the hostages in holds.

Has the senator called upon Hamas to surrender?

Not that I can find. He puts the onus on Israel, apparently believing that berating Israel and denying it weapons is the surest way to end hostilities.

It’s not.

The senator also apparently ignores the unintended but deleterious consequences of his actions.

Hamas was ready to agree to a cease-fire until its leadership determined that the seeming rift between the U.S. and Israel, fueled in part by Van Hollen, meant Hamas was winning, so they refused the cease-fire/hostage release negotiated by the U.S., Egypt, Qatar and Israel.

That same rift helped induce Iran to launch its unprecedented direct attack.

Fortunately, it was President Biden sitting in the Oval Office whose deft diplomacy created a coalition to join Israel in defending its territory.

Though I am certain it’s not his intention, Sen. Van Hollen’s reckless attacks bear some responsibility for more war and more suffering.

I would very much like to see Sen. Van Hollen once again be the pro-Israel leader his constituents supported. In the meantime, I urge readers to carefully assess his recent record and render their own judgment.

One of the nation’s leading public opinion researchers and communication strategists, Mark Mellman is also president and CEO of Democratic Majority for Israel, an organization dedicated to advancing the Democratic agenda and ensuring it remains true to its pro-Israel tradition.

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