Israeli President Isaac Herzog speaks to a joint session of...

Israeli President Isaac Herzog speaks to a joint session of Congress, Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at the Capitol in Washington, as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Calif., look on. Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin

WASHINGTON — Israeli President Isaac Herzog sought to reassure U.S. allies Wednesday on the state of Israel's democracy and the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship, in a speech to Congress acknowledging “intense and painful debate” at home 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 deep unease in the Biden administration and among Democratic lawmakers over the Netanyahu government's controversial overhaul of Israel's judicial system, expanded Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, and other matters.

The divide was reflected in the audience of House and Senate members Wednesday. While lawmakers in attendance 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” but later apologized.

“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 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.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog arrives to speak to a joint...

Israeli President Isaac Herzog arrives to speak to a joint meeting of Congress, Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at the Capitol in Washington, as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Calif., look on. Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin

Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, walked back the comments the next day, insisting they were aimed at Netanyahu and not at Israel.

“I do not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist,” Jayapal said in a statement. “I do, however, believe that Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government has engaged in discriminatory and outright racist policies and that there are extreme racists driving that policy within the leadership of the current government.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., the only Palestinian-American in Congress, is boycotting Herzog's speech and 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.”

Israeli President Isaac Herzog speaks to a joint session of...

Israeli President Isaac Herzog speaks to a joint session of Congress, Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at the Capitol in Washington. Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin

After the speech to Congress, Herzog was 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.

During an Oval Office meeting with Biden on Tuesday, Herzog sought to assure Biden 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 the overhaul 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 thus far proven elusive. Many American Jewish groups and Democratic lawmakers have expressed concerns about the plan.

Herzog’s visit 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.

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.

The Biden administration declined to say whether Biden would host Netanyahu at the White House — as the Israeli leader has hoped — or in New York on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly in September.

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.

On Wednesday, Herzog evoked 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” while “renegotiating the balance of our institutional powers,” 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.

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