WASHINGTON – Israeli President Isaac Herzog sought to reassure Congress on Wednesday about the state of Israel's democracy and the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship, acknowledging “heated and painful debate” at home and criticism abroad over actions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hardline government.
Herzog, whose post in Israel is largely symbolic, became the second Israeli president, after his father, Chaim Herzog, to address Congress. While his speech officially marked modern Israel’s celebration of its 75th year, he also indirectly addressed unease in the Biden administration and among Democratic lawmakers over the Netanyahu government's planned sweeping overhaul of Israel's judicial system, expanded Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank and other matters.
The divide was reflected in his audience. While lawmakers repeatedly rose to their feet in thundering applause of Herzog's recounting of Israel's founding, a handful of leading young progressive Democrats boycotted his speech.
On the eve of Herzog's speech to the joint meeting of Congress, the House passed a Republican-led resolution reaffirming its support for Israel with strong bipartisan approval — an implicit rebuke of Rep. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who over the weekend called the country a “racist state." She later said her remarks were aimed at Netanyahu, not Israel.
“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,” Herzog said.
“But criticism of Israel must not cross the line into negation of the state of Israel’s right to exist. Questioning the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, is not legitimate diplomacy, it is antisemitism.”
The House resolution, introduced by Rep. August Pfluger, R-Texas, passed Tuesday with more than 400 lawmakers backing the measure. It did not mention Jayapal by name but was clearly a response to her recent remarks about Israel. The measure was drafted soon after she criticized Israel and its treatment of Palestinians at a conference on Saturday.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., the only Palestinian-American in Congress, boycotted Herzog's speech along with Jayapal and some others. Tlaib criticized the resolution as normalizing violence against those living in the occupied West Bank, given the Netanyahu government's approval of expanded Jewish settlements there.
“We’re here again reaffirming Congress' support for apartheid,” Tlaib said during floor debate Tuesday on the Republican measure. “Policing the words of women of color who dare to speak up about truths, about oppression.”
During an Oval Office meeting with President Joe Biden on Tuesday, Herzog sought to assure him that Israel remains committed to democracy amid deepening U.S. concerns over Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul his country’s judicial system.
Netanyahu and his allies say restructuring Israel's judicial system is needed to rein in the powers of unelected judges. Opponents say the plan will destroy Israel’s fragile system of checks and balances and move the country toward authoritarian rule.
Herzog has appealed for a compromise that has proven elusive. Speaking to Congress, he stressed the importance of an “independent judiciary" and emphasized Israelis were engaged in a fundamental debate, “renegotiating the balance of our institutional powers.”
Many American Jewish groups and Democratic lawmakers have expressed concerns about Netanyahu's court plan.
Herzog’s visit also comes weeks after Israeli forces carried out one of their most intensive operations in the occupied West Bank in two decades, with a two-day air and ground offensive in Jenin, a militant stronghold. Senior members of Netanyahu’s government have been pushing for increased construction and other measures to cement Israel’s control over the occupied West Bank in response to a more than yearlong wave of violence with the Palestinians.
U.S. officials have broadly supported Israel’s right to defend itself from militant attacks but have also urged restraint to minimize harm to civilians and have lobbied against additional settlements that would further diminish the chances of securing a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.
Herzog made no explicit mention of the big policy differences among Israelis over the Palestinians, including the disagreements over settlements.
Just before Herzog’s visit, Biden spoke with Netanyahu by phone and invited him to meet in the U.S. this fall, although the president expressed reservations about several of the policies from Netanyahu's hard-right coalition.
White House visits are typically standard protocol for Israeli prime ministers, and the delay in Netanyahu receiving one has become an issue in Israel, with opponents citing it as a reflection of deteriorating relations with the U.S.
Much of Herzog's address Wednesday evoked the two countries' strategic, political and cultural connections, in familiar phrases that drew U.S. lawmakers up for ovations each time. “To us it is clear that America is irreplaceable to America and Israel is irreplaceable to America,” he said.
He what are now 28 weeks of large grassroots protests at home against the proposed judicial overhaul by Netanyahu's government, a mix of ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist parties.
“Dear friends, it’s no secret that over the past few months, the Israeli people have engaged in a heated and painful debate,” he said.
“In practice, the intense debate going on back home, even as we speak, is the clearest tribute to the fortitude of Israel’s democracy,” Herzog said.
Herzog planned to return to the White House on Wednesday to meet with Vice President Kamala Harris. Her office said the leaders will announce that both governments intend to spend $70 million over five years to support climate-smart agriculture programs.