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Last-ditch effort

Who are the 15 Senate Dems urging Blinken to block Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program?

While they’re a minority of the Democratic Senate caucus, they include many of the progressive Democrats more willing to criticize Israeli policy in the upper chamber

Gil Cohen Magen/Xinhua via Getty Images

People wait at the departure hall at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Nov. 28, 2021.

Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) led a letter on Friday to Secretary of State Tony Blinken highlighting ongoing concerns about Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program, arguing that Israel is still not in compliance with program regulations and likely will not be by the Sept. 30 deadline. 

The letter alleges that Israel is establishing a “two-tiered system that discriminates between different groups of U.S. citizens” and that admitting it to the program would be a “violation of law.” Given that Israel is reportedly on track to enter the program, the letter appears to be a last-ditch effort to stop it, with the lawmakers requesting a phone call with Blinken “as soon as possible.”

The letter was co-signed by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Jack Reed (D-RI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Peter Welch (D-VT), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Tom Carper (D-DE), Tina Smith (D-MN), Ed Markey (D-MA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI).

Baldwin is the only signatory facing a competitive re-election bid in 2024, although Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) signed a letter in May delivering a similar message. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) signed a July letter pushing for Israel’s entry into the program this year, also tweeting last week that he’ll “be watching closely to ensure this momentum achieves full reciprocity for all Americans regardless of race, religion, or national origin, including those traveling to the West Bank & Gaza.”

The signatories include many of the Senate Democrats who have been more willing to offer criticisms of Israeli policy, particularly as it relates to the Palestinians. Some members of the group have been much more outspoken than others, and some senators who’ve criticized Israeli policy in the past did not join the latest letter.

In recent years, several of the same lawmakers had pushed for further U.S. involvement in investigating the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, urged the administration to block evictions of Palestinians in the West Bank and warned Israel against annexing portions of the West Bank. Some also pushed for the reopening of the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem and the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington.

Durbin, Heinrich, Markey, Merkley, Van Hollen and Warren have signed letters on all five issues in the past few years, as has Brown. Baldwin, Carper, Sanders, Schatz and Shaheen signed onto each of the letters except on the consulate issue.

Recently, Van Hollen and Merkley have also been pushing for greater oversight of Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.

Several of the signatories have remained vocally supportive of the U.S.-Israel security relationship and continued U.S. aid to Israel. But Van Hollen, Sanders and Warren have floated leveraging U.S. aid to Israel, as has Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). 

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