Van Hollen’s gambit

Sen. Chris Van Hollen
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) (File photo)

July 1 has come and gone. That was the date Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set for moving ahead with Israel’s annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank. Perhaps it was a ploy to rally his base. Or maybe it was perceived as an opportunity to execute on a lifelong dream, which was sidetracked by tepid support from the Trump administration. Or maybe it was something else.

But widespread concern about annexation was clear from cautionary warnings from many European governments and other friends of Israel. And, closer to home, many members of Congress expressed concern about a unilateral annexation move, and clear opposition to it. The argument is simple: A unilateral move of such magnitude would create a significant impediment to a negotiated resolution of the vexing Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the possible creation of a Palestinian state.

The most explosive of the responses came from a group of 13 Democratic senators, led by Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and including stalwart Israel supporter Tim Kaine of Virginia. The group offered an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which would bar Israel from using U.S. military aid in “territories in the West Bank unilaterally annexed by Israel.”

The amendment, which no one expects to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate, was immediately criticized by AIPAC and other centrist and right-wing Jewish organizations as going “far beyond current law in ways that jeopardize Israel’s security.” Eight liberal Zionist groups supported the proposed amendment.

The amendment would not cut aid to Israel, now at $3.8 billion annually, by a single penny. Further, conditions on aid are not unusual. They are written into many U.S. aid agreements, including the existing agreement with Israel. But even as we oppose annexation, we believe the Van Hollen amendment was ill-conceived. The move does not appear to be the way friends treat one another, even when they disagree. And it seems to place the proponents in the same category as the vocal minority of congressional Democrats who seek cuts in U.S. aid to Israel. It’s also not the way seasoned politicians conduct international diplomacy.

We have no objection to Van Hollen and others voicing concern over policy issues. It is the punitive aspect of the proposal that is troubling. And these senators — including Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — crossed the line when they moved from disagreement to proposed punishment. And since the senators knew that the amendment has no chance of passing, it begs the question of why they pursued what looks like nothing more than a political stunt.

Annexation may or may not occur. We hope it doesn’t. And we welcome continuing political and policy debate on the issue. But we see no reason for Van Hollen and friends to take the issue in this new, troubling direction.

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