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Herzog focuses on shared US-Israel past, skirts Palestinian issue

Speech comes as Israelis protest Netanyahu government's policies

Israeli President Isaac Herzog, left, greets Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., after Herzog addressed a joint meeting of Congress Wednesday.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog, left, greets Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., after Herzog addressed a joint meeting of Congress Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Israel’s head of state gave a well-received address to Congress on Wednesday that was big on the history of relations with the United States and his optimism for Israel’s democratic future, but short on discussion of the worsening plight of the Palestinians.

Isaac Herzog is the first Israeli president to address a joint meeting of Congress since 1987, when his own father, Chaim Herzog, gave a speech to the House and Senate. In Israel, the position of president is a largely symbolic and unifying role held by statesmen.

When Herzog entered the House chamber, lawmakers stood to applaud him for several minutes, the first of over a dozen standing ovations over the course of his 40-minute speech.

“Today, at this moment in my people’s history, gathering on Capitol Hill to celebrate 75 years of Israeli independence with our greatest partner and friend, the United States of America, my soul is overflowing with pride and joy,” Herzog said to another loud standing ovation. “The people of Israel are grateful to no end for the ancient promise fulfilled and for the friendship we have formed.”

The last Israeli head of government to address Congress was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who gave a controversial speech in 2015 that panned the multinational nuclear deal with Iran the Obama administration was then in the final stages of negotiating. Several dozen Democrats boycotted that address due to their opposition with the partisan nature in which Netanyahu’s speech was arranged.

Wednesday’s address by Herzog was boycotted by a much smaller number of progressive House Democrats who said they wouldn’t attend due to their strong opposition to the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians.

“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,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., who is Palestinian American, and Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., in a joint statement.

“It is hypocritical to claim to be deeply concerned about attacks on Palestinian families, and then smile for a photo op with the president of the government enabling these human rights abuses and maintaining the status quo.”

The two women were among only a handful of lawmakers — all Democrats — to vote on Tuesday against a symbolic resolution that expressed the sense of Congress that “the State of Israel is not a racist or apartheid state.” The measure was overwhelmingly approved, 412-9.

The resolution was introduced on Monday by Rep. August Pfluger, R-Texas, in response to weekend comments made — and partially retracted — by the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who called Israel a “racist state” at a conference of progressive political activists. Jayapal voted in favor of the resolution on Tuesday.

Human rights assessments

Major international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as Israel’s leading human rights group, B’Tselem, have concluded the deteriorating living conditions and rights situation in the Palestinian territories have come to constitute apartheid. Still, the use of the word “apartheid” to characterize the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians remains deeply toxic on Capitol Hill.

Herzog said it was his “deep yearning…for Israel to one day make peace with our Palestinian neighbors,” but largely placed the responsibility for the lack of progress toward a two-state solution on terrorist attacks committed by Palestinians. He didn’t acknowledge, or even mention, any role played by conservative Israeli governments’ policies over two decades to sour Palestinian opinion toward Israel. 

The Israeli policies include major settlement expansions in the West Bank, raids and air strikes by the Israeli military that result in Palestinian civilian casualties, increasing attacks by ultranationalist Israeli settlers on Palestinians, and the blockade since 2007 of the Gaza Strip.

“Palestinian terror against Israel or Israelis undermines any possibility for a future of peace between our peoples,” Herzog said. “Israelis are targeted while waiting for buses, while taking a stroll on the promenade, while spending time with their family.”

Many Israeli moderates and liberals are opposed to a plan by the Netanyahu government — the most conservative one in the country’s history — to reduce the independence of the Israeli judiciary. Efforts to push forward with the judicial overhaul have prompted months of heated street protests.

“It’s no secret that over the past few months, the Israeli people have engaged in a heated and painful debate. We have been immersed in voicing our differences and revisiting and renegotiating the balance of our institutional powers,” Herzog 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 touched on changing U.S. opinion toward Israel, particularly among younger Democrats who are more likely to criticize the longstanding unstinting U.S. support, which includes $3.8 billion annually in military grants and missile defense funding.

“A new generation of Israelis and Americans are assuming leadership roles,” Herzog said. “A generation that is less engaged in the roots that connect our peoples. A generation, that, perhaps, takes for granted the U.S.-Israel relationship. Yet, at this moment, I choose optimism. Because to me it is clear that the shift in generations does not reflect changing values.”

He added: “I am here to tell the American people, and each of you, that I have great confidence in Israeli democracy. Although we are working through sore issues, just like you, I know our democracy is strong and resilient. Israel has democracy in its DNA.”

While Herzog’s speech didn’t assuage Israel’s critics on the American left and in the Muslim American community, he appeared to have succeeded in his goal of shoring up support among the large bulk of congressional Democrats and their leaders.

“Israeli President Herzog has been a voice of political moderation and democracy…He has patriotically urged his country’s political leaders to step back from the brink of recklessly damaging key democratic institutions,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 ranking Senate Democrat, said in a statement. “He also recognizes that spoilers on both sides seek to sabotage any possible two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians.”

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