On Tuesday, Rep. Chris Van Hollen handily defeated Rep. Donna Edwards for the Democratic nomination to be Maryland’s next senator, in what the Forward described as a victory for “the mainstream pro-Israel establishment.”
Van Hollen “vastly outspent his rival, $6.3 million to $2.7 million,” per the Washington Post; and the race became racially somewhat-polarized; but Van Hollen was able to count on the support of the Israel lobby against Edwards, who was seen as more sympathetic to Palestinians. Pro-Israel megadonor Haim Saban gave Van Hollen $100,000; and Van Hollen dutifully enlisted in the battle to fight Israel’s international delegitimization, calling that effort a form of anti-Semitism:
He believes we must also remain absolutely committed to ensuring the security of our ally Israel and fight anti-Semitism wherever it raises its ugly head.
Interestingly, both Van Hollen and Edwards once had sterling progressive records on the Middle East. And then Van Hollen got an education. Here’s the story.
Halfway through the 2006 Lebanon War, Van Hollen– then a freshman congressman who had heroically knocked off a Republican in 2004 over the incumbent’s Iraq War vote–wrote a sharp letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging the U.S. to pressure Israel to cease fire.
Much of that letter said the close US-Israel relationship was hurting American interest in the region and the world:
Like any sovereign country, Israel has the right and responsibility to defend itself….
The Israeli response, however, has now gone beyond the destruction of Hezbollah’s military assets. It has caused huge damage to Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure, resulted in the large loss of civilian life, and produced over 750,000 refugees. Hezbollah is undeniably the culprit, but it is the Lebanese people — not Hezbollah — who are increasingly the victims of the violence. As a result, the Israeli bombing campaign, supported by the United States, has transformed Lebanese anger at Hezbollah into growing hostility toward Israel and the United States. The result has been a surge in the political strength and popularity of Hezbollah and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, and the weakening of the already fragile Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the Arab League have gone from condemning Hezbollah to denouncing Israel for its actions and the United States for its inaction. … We have squandered an opportunity to isolate Hezbollah and strengthen our credibility and negotiating leverage in the region. As a result of our ineffectiveness, Hezbollah has won a political victory not only in Lebanon, but throughout the Arab world, the Muslim world, and much of the international community. We may have won some battles, but we are losing the war.
You have failed the obligation of a good friend to give sound counsel and advice. I understand the impulses that are driving Israel’s actions, but I strongly believe that a continuation of the bombing campaign as it is being carried out is against the interests of the Israel and the United States. When someone is in the heat of battle, it can sometimes be difficult to see the full picture. It is the responsibility of the United States, as a close friend and ally, to intervene more effectively in this crisis. In my view, Israel is entirely justified in using the maximum force necessary to hit Hezbollah military targets. The issue, however, is not the amount of force used, but where and how it is applied. Had you done your job and successfully urged Israel to limit its attacks to clear, identifiable Hezbollah military assets, I would support a continuation of the campaign. But you failed to do that. Your lack of effective leadership has harmed the interests of both Israel and the United States…
Finally, no lasting solution to the turmoil in the Middle East will be achieved without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian problem. In a speech delivered at the American Enterprise Institute in February 2003, a few weeks before invading Iraq, President Bush declared that going to war would help promote democracy and stability in the Middle East, reduce the influence of the hardliners and help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He claimed that it would “begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace and set in motion progress toward a truly democratic Palestinian state.” Unfortunately, but predictably, we have seen the opposite result in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. The region has been more radicalized and Hamas prevailed in the Palestinian elections. While we engaged militarily in Iraq, this Administration has disengaged from any serious effort at re-establishing an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It is essential that the United States renew its efforts to resolve this festering issue. There can be little doubt that the lack of progress on that front continues to breed hatred and hostility that is effectively exploited by Hezbollah, Iran, Syria and others. Until that conflict is resolved, it will remain a key component of anti-American sentiment throughout the Middle East and complicate our efforts at democracy promotion in the region.The overall foreign policy of this Administration has significantly diminished America’s credibility and moral standing around the world. That, in turn, has severely undermined our effectiveness. I sincerely hope that the current turmoil in the Middle East will result in a fresh American initiative to seek a comprehensive solution to the many conflicts brewing in the region. It will be a true test of leadership. I hope you will engage the Congress in such an effort.
Van Hollen was promptly slapped by Shmuel Rosner in Haaretz.
Van Hollen was called in for a little chat with officials from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Some accepted his explanations – he did not apologize, just clarified his statements – but others thought that was not enough and that Van Hollen had crossed the red line.
At the root of the American administration’s support for Israel lies the assumption that this is not a subject of controversy. One can attack George W. Bush, but not at Israel’s expense. Van Hollen’s district in Maryland is very pro-Democrat, and is also populated by many Jews. Some of them may reconsider their congressional choice.
Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer also described Van Hollen’s reprimand– emphasis is mine:
Although Van Hollen’s letter focused primarily on U.S. interests and supported Israel’s right to defend itself, the lobby was furious with him for daring to criticize Israel and quickly moved to make it manifestly clear that he should have never written that letter.109 Van Hollen met with various representatives from major Jewish organizations, including AIPAC, and the congressman immediately apologized, saying, “I am sorry if my strong criticism of the Bush Administration’s failures has been interpreted as a criticism of Israel’s conduct in the current crisis. That was certainly not my intention.” He emphasized that he would continue to be a strong advocate for Israel and shortly thereafter went on a five-day visit to Israel (sponsored by an AIPAC affiliate, the American Israel Education Foundation), accompanied by three pro-Israel activists from his district and a staffer from AIPAC itself.
Despite his apology, the leader of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington told a reporter that Van Hollen “needs to continue to reach out to the Jewish community … to reassure the Jewish community he is going to be there” for Israel. The ADL’s regional director for Washington said that as far as he was concerned, Van Hollen’s response “doesn’t undo the damage of the first letter.” The goal, of course, was not merely to chastise Van Hollen but also to remind other members of Congress of the costs of getting out of line on this issue.
MJ Rosenberg commented on Van Hollen’s transformation a year ago at the Israel lobby conference, as the race against Edwards heated up.
The lobby types still didn’t trust him, but now, a decade later, with Van Hollen demonstrating his devotion, he is the lobby’s candidate, with his opponent, Rep. Donna Edwards, assigned the former Chris Van Hollen role of Israel critic. Last week, he was asked by the Baltimore Jewish paper why he had ever done that in 2006. What were you thinking? He said there was a situation where there were some differences with the community, the goals were the same, they’re always the same, which is to ensure the safety of Israel. We have shared values, shared priorities. And this issue, it’s going to be one of the biggest issues in Maryland, in the primary, that Donna Edwards is an enemy of Israel, the Jewish people. None of it’s true. And Chris Van Hollen, who has the same views as she does, he’s smartly insulated against them by making all his apologies.
That is the way it’s been for the past 30 years. That may be changing or not, something we will not know until we see how the effort to roll back the Iran agreement goes.
Thanks to Janet McMahon of the Israel’s Influence conference, and WRMEA.