Photo by Francis Chung/POLITICO
In an address delivered to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, Israeli President Isaac Herzog emphasized his country’s close relationship with the U.S., while also responding to recent criticism from some lawmakers.
At least five progressive members boycotted Herzog’s speech, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Cori Bush (Mo.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.), principally over Israel’s treatment of Palestinian people and its democratic norms. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), who days prior had called Israel a “racist state” and apologized after her remarks drew bipartisan condemnation, missed the speech due to scheduling conflicts, a spokesperson said.
In response, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy fast-tracked a resolution declaring that Israel was not racist or an apartheid state, which passed 412-9 on Wednesday night with Jayapal voting in favor.
Herzog addressed the boycotts from some lawmakers during his address.
“I am not oblivious to criticism among friends, including some expressed by respected members of this House,” Herzog said. “I respect criticism, especially from friends, although one does not always have to accept it. But criticism of Israel must not cross the line into negation of the state of Israel’s right to exist.”
He warned of the line between criticism and antisemitism.
“Questioning the Jewish people’s right to self-determination is not legitimate diplomacy, it is antisemitisim. Vilifying and attacking Jews, whether in Israel, in the United States, or anywhere in the world is antisemitism,” he said. “Antisemitism is a disgrace in every form, and I commend President Joe Biden for laying out the United States’ first-ever national strategy to combat antisemitism.”
No signs of disunity appeared during the address, with lawmakers frequently erupting in applause and delivering standing ovations. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) held an Israeli flag. Nearly every seat was occupied during what was only the second address Israel’s head of state has ever given to Congress — the first being Herzog’s own father, former Israeli President Chaim Herzog, in 1987.
Herzog’s visit to Washington has been shadowed by Biden’s dynamic with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who the president has invited to the U.S. sometime this year. That invitation came in a Monday call between the two men on the eve of Biden hosting Herzog at the White House, a visit interpreted by many as a rebuke to Netanyahu.
His speech comes during a heightened period of scrutiny over democratic norms in Israel. Netanyahu, who leads the most right-wing government in the country’s history, has indicated he will move forward with a contentious plan to limit the influence of Israel’s judiciary — despite massive protests that have covered the country since January.
“I am well aware of the imperfections of Israeli democracy, and I am conscious of the questions posed by our greatest friends,” Herzog said during the address. “The momentous debate in Israel is painful, and deeply unnerving, because it highlights the cracks within the whole.”
Herzog also railed against the possible nuclear capabilities of Iran, as the Biden administration continues navigating how to constrain the country’s approach to nuclear weapons.
“Let there be no doubt: Iran does not strive to attain nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” Herzog said to a standing ovation. “Allowing Iran to become a nuclear threshold state — whether by omission or by diplomatic commission — is unacceptable.”
Herzog expressed a hope to unite a younger generation of Israelis and Palestinians, but warned Israel could not accept what he called “Palestinian terror” against the country, which undermined “a future of peace.”
Herzog also praised Tel Aviv’s LGBTQ Pride Parade — one of the largest in the world — to cheering from Democrats that was not mirrored on the other side of the aisle.
The lines that received consistent bipartisan applause were those praising the longtime allyship between the U.S. and Israel.
“It is clear that America is irreplaceable to Israel, and Israel is irreplaceable to America,” Herzog said.
Jonathan Lemire and Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.