In address focused on Israel’s liberal and democratic values, Herzog extends olive branch to progressives
The Israeli president’s speech to a joint session of Congress comes amid internal divisions at home and left-wing criticism of Israel in Congress
Speaking before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, Israeli President Isaac Herzog made an impassioned argument in defense of Israel’s “vibrant democracy” at a time that internal divisions at home and left-wing criticism of Israel in Congress threatened to overshadow his speech.
Herzog’s speech was peppered with statements about the strength and importance of the U.S.-Israel partnership, earning bipartisan standing ovations throughout. But at its core, the address was an assertion of Israel’s liberal and democratic values, with lines that appealed to both pro-democracy protesters back home and progressive lawmakers in the U.S.
Israel, Herzog declared, is “a country which takes pride in its vibrant democracy, its protection of minorities, human rights, and civil liberties, as laid down by its parliament, the Knesset, and safeguarded by its strong Supreme Court and independent judiciary.” The remark earned hearty bipartisan applause, including from many lawmakers on the left who have expressed concerns about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial efforts to reform Israel’s judiciary.
Israel’s democracy, Herzog said, “has always been based on free and fair elections, on honoring the people’s choice, on safeguarding minority rights, on protection of human and civil liberties, and on a strong and independent judiciary.” Nearly every burst of applause was bipartisan, but many Republicans did not clap when Herzog praised Tel Aviv for hosting “one of the largest and most impressive LGBTQ pride parades in the world.”
The days before Herzog’s address were marked by major political battles in both Washington and Israel.
Widespread anti-judicial reform protests continued across Israel. In Washington, a political battle over Israel unfolded after Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) called Israel a “racist state,” sparking Congress to vote nearly unanimously on Tuesday to adopt a resolution affirming that Israel is not a racist or apartheid state.
“The intense debate going on back home, even as we speak, is the clearest tribute to the fortitude of Israel’s democracy,” said Herzog.
A handful of far-left lawmakers — including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) — boycotted Herzog’s speech. Jayapal and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), also vocal critics of Israel, skipped the speech but claimed scheduling conflicts.
But many of the 58 Democratic lawmakers who in 2015 skipped Netanyahu’s speech before a similar joint session attended Herzog’s address on Wednesday, among them Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Tim Kaine (D-VA).
Herzog acknowledged the heated American political debate over Israel.
“I am not oblivious to criticism among friends, including some expressed by respected members of this House,” he said. “I respect criticism, especially from friends, although one does not always have to accept it.”
But, Herzog added, “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,” he said. “It is antisemitism.”
Calling antisemitism “a disgrace in every form,” Herzog praised President Joe Biden’s recently released national strategy to counter antisemitism — a line that earned applause even from some Republican lawmakers who were critical of the antisemitism plan.
Where Netanyahu has been a vocal critic of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the Biden administration’s attempts at diplomacy with Iran, Herzog — who serves as a symbolic figurehead rather than a political leader — shied away from addressing Biden foreign policy head-on. He called the Iranian nuclear program “perhaps the greatest challenge” faced by Israel and the U.S.
He also called for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, though he did not mention a Palestinian state or reference a two-state solution. “My deep yearning,” he said,” is for Israel to one day make peace with our Palestinian neighbors,” though he noted that Palestinian terror “undermines any possibility for a future of peace between our peoples.”
But before he got to the Palestinians, he praised the Abraham Accords and thanked the U.S. for “working towards establishing peaceful relations between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” which he said would be “a huge sea change in the course of history.”
Herzog ended his address with a nod toward Israel’s 75th anniversary, and his hopes for the next 75 — alongside the U.S. at every step of the way. “Our shared hope,” Herzog said, is “that we can heal our fractured world as the closest of allies and friends.”
For Jewish Americans, the several hundred seats in the gallery of the House chamber were the hottest ticket in town this week.
Herzog’s guests included Clifton Truman Daniel, the grandson of Harry Truman, the first world leader to recognize Israel; Susannah Heschel, a Dartmouth professor and the daughter of civil rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; and Leah Goldin, the mother of an Israeli soldier killed by Hamas and whose body remains in Gaza.
The guest list also included a diverse array of American Jewish leaders — among them the top Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis, and the leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America, AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Agency. Tom Nides, who will soon conclude his tenure as U.S. ambassador to Israel, and Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, were also present.