Israeli President Isaac Herzog shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris at a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress at the U.S. Capitol on July 19, 2023, in Washington, D.C. Herzog’s speech on the floor of the House of Representatives stirred controversy as some liberal Democrats planned a boycott, underscoring tensions between the two countries. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Israeli President Isaac Herzog, honoring Israel’s 75th year of independence, on Wednesday assured U.S. lawmakers that his nation “has democracy in its DNA,” even as tensions grow over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s increasingly extreme agenda to overhaul Israel’s judicial system and ramp up construction of settlements in the West Bank.
Herzog’s remarks to a joint meeting of Congress followed a widely publicized series of events in which Washington Democrat and the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Rep. Pramila Jayapal walked back her comment made Saturday in which she called Israel a “racist state.”
The House quickly and overwhelmingly, in a 412-9 vote, passed a resolution Tuesday affirming its support for Israel and declaring that the nation is “not a racist or apartheid state” and that “Congress rejects all forms of antisemitism and xenophobia.”
Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Cori Bush of Missouri, André Carson of Indiana and Summer Lee of Pennsylvania were among the nine Democrats who voted against the measure. Jayapal voted in favor.
Tlaib, the only Congress member of Palestinian descent, and Bush issued a joint statement Tuesday about their plan to boycott Herzog’s speech.
“Bestowing President Herzog with the rare honor of a joint address to Congress while the Israeli apartheid government continues to enable and directly support racism and brutal settler attacks is a slap in the face to victims, survivors, and their loved ones — including the families of Americans murdered by this regime like Shireen Abu Akleh and Omar Assad,” they wrote, referring to the May 2022 killing of a Palestinian-American journalist and the early 2022 death of an American citizen after being detained by Israeli forces.
But during his 40-minute address Wednesday in the U.S. House of Representatives, Herzog said his “deep yearning” is for peace with Palestinians and that both the U.S. and Israel “have always stood for the same values.”
“Our two nations are both diverse, life-affirming societies that stand for liberty, equality and freedom,” the Israeli head of state said. “At our core, both our peoples seek to repair the cracks in our world.”
Among the tests facing both nations: regional tension, a raging war in Ukraine, the threat of a nuclear Iran, climate change, polarization and antisemitism, Herzog said.
“Mr. Speaker, I am not oblivious to criticism among friends, including some expressed by respected members of this House. I respect criticism, especially from friends, although one does not always have to accept it,” he said. “But criticism of Israel must not cross the line into negation of the State of Israel’s right to exist.”
Herzog commended President Joe Biden, who hosted him Tuesday at the White House, for what the administration described in May as the nation’s first-ever strategy to combat antisemitism — a comment that garnered applause from both sides of the aisle.
Jewish Americans account for 2.4% of the U.S. population but are the victims of 63% of reported religiously motivated hate crimes, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Cheers and applause
Herzog’s speech to U.S. lawmakers — only the second from an Israeli president since 1987, when his father, Chaim Herzog, spoke at the U.S. Capitol — was punctuated by more than a dozen standing ovations.
“Israel’s first 75 years were rooted in an ancient dream,” Herzog said to uproarious cheers in the chamber. “Let us base our next 75 years on hope. Our shared hope, that we can heal our fractured world, as the closest of allies and friends.”
Among the invited guests in the crowded gallery was Clifton Truman Daniel, grandson of former U.S. President Harry S. Truman, who in 1949 hosted Herzog’s grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Halevi Herzog, in the Oval Office to reaffirm U.S. support of Israel, which had been established the prior year.
Herzog praised the U.S. negotiation of the Abraham Accords three years ago, a “true game changer” establishing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, and peace treaties signed decades earlier with Jordan and Egypt.
In remarks before his Oval Office meeting with Herzog, Biden said the friendship between Israel and the U.S. is “just simply unbreakable.”
In addition to navigating peace deals, Biden said Israel has “ironclad” security cooperation from the U.S. to hold Iran at bay.
“We’re committed, as well, to ensure that — that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon,” Biden said.
In 2018, former President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal.
Talks have resumed under Biden, but have been stymied in recent weeks after lead negotiator and U.S. diplomat Rob Malley was placed on unpaid leave by the U.S. State Department while it investigates his handling of classified material.
By phone Monday, Biden invited Netanyahu to meet in the U.S. in the fall, the first invitation since the Israeli leader re-entered office in December 2022.
Protests continued in Israel this week as Netanyahu and right-wing members of Israel’s parliament move ahead with legislation that would limit the nation’s judiciary — an action Biden has criticized.
Herzog told Congress Israel is based on a “strong and independent judiciary,” and that the demonstrations against a potential overhaul of the legal system are the “clearest tribute” to the nation’s democracy, to which members applauded.
“I am well aware of the imperfections of Israeli democracy, and I am conscious of the questions posed by our greatest friends. This momentous debate in Israel is painful and deeply unnerving because it highlights the cracks within the whole,” Herzog said.
Herzog’s further description of Israel’s diverse democracy — including painting a Friday afternoon scene in which the Muslim call to prayer simultaneously “blends” with the siren announcing the Sabbath all “while one of the largest and most impressive LGBTQ Pride parades in the world is going on in Tel Aviv” — did not receive the unanimous standing applause and cheers that the other remarks did. Many Republicans remained seated.
Upon the closing of his speech, senators and representatives rushed to greet the Israeli president. Among the first to shake hands were Sens. Alex Padilla of California, Chris Coons of Delaware, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.
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