Van Hollen emerging as leader of progressive Senate bloc critical of Israeli policy

The Maryland senator has led efforts to place conditions on emergency aid to Israel and raised concerns about its military operation against Hamas

Maryland’s Senate delegation is set to jump to the left on Israel policy in 2025, with the retirement of Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the state’s longtime senator and a pro-Israel stalwart. That means Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), emerging as a leading critic of Israeli policy in the Senate, will soon be one of the most senior lawmakers in the state.

Since Oct. 7, Van Hollen — who entered the Senate in 2017 as the preferred candidate of the pro-Israel community, with their support — has led lawmakers in raising concerns about Israel’s military operations in the West Bank and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which he has attributed in large part to Israeli policy decisions. 

He’s leading an amendment seeking to place conditions on most emergency aid to Israel and other U.S. allies — requiring assurances that they will comply with U.S. humanitarian efforts before they can receive aid — following previous calls to place limits on U.S. aid. (Van Hollen and other supporters have eschewed describing the amendment as conditioning aid.)

On Wednesday, Van Hollen and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) — following a trip to the Middle East last week — raised concerns that restrictions, particularly those imposed by Israel, are preventing relief for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Their trip didn’t include a stop in Israel.

At the same time, Van Hollen has continued to defend Israel’s right to defend itself and eliminate Hamas’ military capacity, and has not directly called for a cease-fire, like a growing number of his progressive counterparts in the House.

Van Hollen argued in a statement to Jewish Insider that it’s not him, or his positions, that have shifted, but Israel.

“I am and always have been a strong believer in the U.S. partnership with Israel and remain a steadfast friend of the Israeli people,” he said. “My position on Israel has not changed – what has changed is the ever-rightward drift of the Israeli government culminating in the current Netanyahu coalition comprised of far-right extremists like [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich and [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben-Gvir.”

Van Hollen continued: “Like President Biden, I will fight for a two-state solution as the only viable way to protect a homeland for the Jewish people and create a more stable, secure, and just future for both Israelis and Palestinians. And I will continue to support Israel’s security and the right to defend itself, including eliminating the military threat of Hamas and securing the release of hostages.” 

But the differences between Van Hollen and Cardin have been growing more apparent. The same day Van Hollen critiqued Israel for not allowing enough humanitarian aid into Gaza, Cardin spoke at an Orthodox Union luncheon, where the senator highlighted the volume of military equipment that had been smuggled into Gaza despite international inspections.

“For those that think it’s easy to get humanitarian assistance into Gaza, think about all the military supplies that were accumulated that were used against Israel,” Cardin said. “That was [brought] into Gaza through supposed inspections at the border. Israel has a responsibility to make sure that Hamas is not being resupplied.”

Despite their differences, Cardin defended his colleague’s approach to Israel policy.

“Senator Cardin and Senator Van Hollen work together on all issues imaginable. They agree on many and disagree on some. On Israel, they both are supporters of the Jewish state and the need for a two-state solution,” a Cardin spokesperson told JI. “Both were outraged by Hamas’ attack on Oct, 7. Over the years, both have been critical of the Netanyahu government. They also both are open to discussions with constituents and others with varying viewpoints.”

Van Hollen maintained a generally pro-Israel record when he ran for the Senate as a longtime congressman from Montgomery County, just outside the nation’s capital. 

Campaigning against former Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), who long had a rocky relationship with the Jewish community over her criticism of Israel, Van Hollen was widely seen as the more pro-Israel candidate in the race with vocal backers among the Jewish community on Israel issues. 

In the House, Van Hollen regularly joined and supported legislation and letters supporting Israel and pushing back on criticisms of Israel — a particularly striking contrast with Edwards’ record.

“To be pro-Israel in the race against Donna Edwards is not hard,” Ron Halber, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, which includes D.C.’s Maryland suburbs, told Jewish Insider. “She was anti-Israel, she was terrible for Israel… Of course Chris was by far the most pro-Israel candidate in that race, easily.”

Barbara Goldberg Goldman, a longtime Jewish Democratic leader in Maryland, said she supported him “very strongly” in 2016 because she saw him as “very, very supportive of Israel and Israel’s right to defend and protect itself” as well as a “very staunch supporter of a two-state solution.” She added that she also supported his broader platform on a range of domestic issues, like affordable housing.

At the same time, Van Hollen’s record on Israel, even before his Senate campaign, offered hints toward his current stance — he’s never been fully aligned with the pro-Israel community, even if he maintained stronger relations than Edwards.

Most notably, in 2006, during Israel’s war with Lebanon, Van Hollen argued in a letter to the Bush administration that the Israeli operation had overstepped its legitimate goals of attacking Hezbollah military assets and had instead victimized the Lebanese people. He called for a cease-fire, arguing that the continued military campaign would be contrary to U.S. and Israeli interests, and that the U.S. should encourage Israeli restraint.

Some of the language in Van Hollen’s letter is very similar to that which progressives have deployed regarding Israel’s current campaign in Gaza.

Van Hollen, under criticism from pro-Israel groups, said at the time that his letter was aimed more at criticizing the then-U.S. administration and was not an attempt to argue Israel’s operation was illegitimate.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, the senior rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md., who also leads the Zionist Rabbinic Coalition, said that he has been meeting with Van Hollen and his staff dating back to Van Hollen’s time in the House.

“He was never an easy [or] sure vote in support of Israel, even then,” Weinblatt said. “At the end of the day, more often than not, he came around. But it was always quite clear — to me at least — that support for Israel and understanding the conflict from a perspective that’s sympathetic to Israel was [never] in his perspective or outlook.”

But, he added, it “wasn’t really too hard of a choice to make” in the 2016 race between Edwards — ”someone who was known to be unsympathetic and antagonistic towards the Jewish state” — and Van Hollen, who “we could count on… to be at the end of the day supportive of Israel.”

The Maryland senator’s more outspoken criticism of Israeli policy, and U.S. policy toward the region, began well before Oct. 7. 

His involvement appears to have intensified beginning in the late stages of the Trump administration in 2020, amid discussions of potential Israeli annexation of the West Bank, when he helped lead efforts to oppose such a move.

In the years since, he’s become outspoken on Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, warning that they might endanger the viability of a two-state solution.

He has helped lead or been a prominent voice raising concerns about possible conditions for a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal, resisting Israel’s quick entry into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, advocating for the reopening of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Washington mission and the U.S.’ East Jerusalem consulate, criticizing Israeli evictions of Palestinians in the West Bank and settlement activity, and pushing for greater U.S. scrutiny of the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

Van Hollen told JI that what he characterized as the shifts of the Israeli government “ha[ve] harmed the best interests of both Israel and the United States — from the Netanyahu coalition’s attempts to restrict democratic rights to the expansion of settlements and outposts, to the more recent complete denunciation of a two-state solution.”

Van Hollen has remained supportive of elements of the U.S.-Israel relationship broadly, including supporting annual missile-defense aid to the Jewish state.

Weinblatt said that he feels, based on the senator’s increasingly outspoken activism, that the senator has “growing antipathy towards Israel,” particularly in recent years, and has felt “more liberated to publicly express” critical views, although he said he doesn’t believe the senator harbors any “malicious feeling” toward Israel or Israelis — unlike members of extreme left in the House.

Weinblatt believes Van Hollen has “quite often put the onus on Israel for there not being a [two-state] solution and for the ongoing stalemate” and has frequently “given the Palestinian Authority a pass, and has not held them responsible for their actions, and how they’ve contributed to the hostilities.”

Weinblatt said frustrations with Van Hollen’s positions on Israel come up frequently in conversations with others in the pro-Israel community, describing the senator’s growing leadership role among critics of Israel as a particular source of frustration.

Goldberg Goldman said she was not familiar with Van Hollen’s proposed amendment to the aid package and doesn’t support conditioning aid to Israel, but that it wouldn’t be a dealbreaker for her overall support for the senator.

“If he were to try to condition aid to Israel, I would be adamantly opposed to it,” Goldberg Goldman she said. “And I’d like to convince him to look at it differently… But there are a host of other issues where I’m aligned with him.”

She added that she thinks it’s understandable to be critical of positions taken by Netanyahu and his government and remain supportive of Israel as a nation — as many in the U.S. Jewish community have.

Halber described Van Hollen’s relationship with the Jewish community as a “mixed bag” — highlighting that many Jews in the community support Van Hollen’s overall progressive domestic agenda and that he’s also been key in helping to secure Nonprofit Security Grant Program funding for Jewish institutions.

He emphasized that Van Hollen has been supportive of baseline pro-Israel issues such as annual military aid, replenishing Iron Dome batteries and sending aircraft carriers to the region following the Oct. 7 attack — as opposed to far-left lawmakers like the Squad in the House — but said he thinks Van Hollen is concerned about what he sees as the shrinking possibilities for a two-state solution.

But, Halber continued, discussions and calls for conditioning aid to Israel, especially in the middle of a war and in the aftermath of Oct. 7, are objectionable to many in Maryland’s Jewish community.

“I think he’s just furious with the Prime Minister [Benjamin Netanyahu],” Halber said. “I think Chris is part of that progressive, respected mainstream that views the conflict as somebody who supports Israel, but wants the government of Israel to seriously begin undertaking a two-state solution, but views the prime minister and his reliance on a small number of right-wing parties as an impediment.”

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