Van Hollen says effort to sanction the ICC is ‘mafia thug’ behavior

The Maryland senator also complained that the Biden administration wasn’t being tough enough against Israel in Center for American Progress appearance

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD)

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) on Monday compared Republican colleagues to “mafia thugs” for seeking to sanction the International Criminal Court, while also calling for U.S. sanctions on at least one Israeli leader.

“[Proposing sanctions on the ICC] is more befitting mafia thugs than U.S. senators and it is totally counterproductive to our interests,” Van Hollen said in an appearance at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. Lawmakers from both parties have called for sanctions on ICC officials in response to the officials’ decision to seek arrest warrants for Israeli leaders.

He also said he “share[s] some of the concerns expressed by the Biden administration, some of them, regarding the process here” of seeking the warrants, but brushed off one of the most common criticisms of the court’s decision to seek arrest warrants for Israeli and Hamas leaders.

“I encourage everybody to read the documents put forward by the prosecutor,” Van Hollen said. “He doesn’t draw any equivalence between the actions of Hamas and Israel.”

He claimed that the biggest beneficiary of U.S. sanctions on the court would be Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom the ICC is seeking to prosecute; the U.S., Van Hollen said, provided $5 million in funding to the court to assist with the prosecution of Putin.

Van Hollen said that Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich should be sanctioned under new U.S. policy targeting those involved in West Bank settler violence, for “facilitating” settler violence, as well as supporting settlement expansion and Israeli annexation of the West Bank and attempting to “destroy the Palestinian Authority.”

The Maryland senator dismissed the idea that a Palestinian state would reward or validate Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel by noting that the terrorist group has pursued a one-state solution. He went on to say that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir likewise reject a two-state solution — “they want it all.”

“The United States is going to have to — this is a moment of reckoning — have to be willing to stand up” to push for a two-state solution, he said.

He said the Biden administration had “really failed” to hold the Israeli government to account for allegedly blocking humanitarian aid, particularly calling out the two right-wing ministers. Israel has recently increased flows of humanitarian aid into Gaza, and has blamed shortages primarily on distribution issues by humanitarian aid providers and diversion of aid by Hamas and others in Gaza.

Van Hollen complained that Netanyahu has “listened much more” to coalition members like Smotrich and Ben-Gvir than to President Joe Biden, and said that the decision to invite Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress “sends a really bad signal.”

Van Hollen said that House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA), who spearheaded the invitation, “has essentially… become the campaign manager for Bibi Netanyahu.”

He expressed support for Biden’s announcement of a cease-fire proposal last week — which Van Hollen said was “based on an Israeli proposal” — and said it’s “important that Hamas immediately accept those parameters,” while adding that “it’s also important that Prime Minister Netanyahu hold firm, even as he has these very, very extreme, super-right, ultra-nationalists… threatening to leave the government.”

While not saying it outright, Van Hollen suggested that Biden was ignoring his own red line on cutting off weapons shipments in the event of an invasion of Rafah, emphasizing “his red line on Rafah was broader” than only withholding shipments of 2,000-pound bombs. “That was an important step, but it needs to be one of many steps.”

Van Hollen also again criticized the Biden administration’s handling of new reporting requirements and conditions on U.S. foreign aid, saying the report on aid to Israel “fell short in many, many places,” reiterating his views that Israel violated U.S. arms sales law “a long, long time ago.” 

He said that it “looks terrible” for U.S. “credibility” in its foreign policy that it has failed to “be more forward leaning in using all the tools that we have available to try to implement the president’s own stated goals” when the Israeli government has rejected U.S. pressure.

The Marylander said U.S. support for Israel is giving other nations ammunition to brush off American priorities; he said that South Africa’s foreign minister had brushed off his concerns about the country’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by pointing to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Van Hollen said that current U.S. State Department officials are facing “tough decisions” about whether to remain in the government, and that he “totally support[s]” those who have publicly resigned in protest of the administration’s policies, as well as those who remain in government. 

He connected the situation to his own father, Chris Van Hollen Sr.’s, public clashes with then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger while the elder Van Hollen was a State Department official.

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