Israeli President Herzog Tells Congress His Country is Committed to Democracy Amid ‘Painful Debate’

President of Israel Isaac Herzog sought to reassure Congress Wednesday about the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship and state of Israel’s democracy and acknowledged a “heated and painful debate” at home along with criticism abroad over actions taken by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government. 

Herzog’s post in Israel is primarily symbolic, and he became the second Israeli president, following Chaim Herzog, to address Congress. Although his speech officially marked modern Israel’s celebration of its 75th year, Herzog indirectly addressed unease in the Biden administration and among Democratic lawmakers over the planned sweeping by the Netanyahu government of Israel’s judicial system, expansion of Jewish settlement into the West Bank and additional matters. 

While legislators repeatedly rose to their feet and gave Herzog thundering applause while recounting Israel’s founding, a handful of young progressive Democrats boycotted his speech. 

On the eve of the Israeli president’s speech to the joint meeting of Congress, the House passed a GOP-led resolution reaffirming its support for Israel and received strong bipartisan approval. It was an implicit rebuke of Democrat Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who called the country a “racist state” over the weekend. Later, she said her remarks were aimed at PM 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,” said Herzog. 

“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,” he continued. 

The House resolution was introduced by GOP Representative August Pfluger of Texas and passed Tuesday with over 400 lawmakers blocking the measure. Although it didn’t mention Jayapal by name, it was an apparent response to her recent remarks about Israel. The measure was drafted shortly after she criticized Israel and its treatment of Palestinians at a Saturday conference. 

The only Palestinian-American in Congress, Democrat Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, boycotted Herzog’s speech along with Jayapal and others. Tlaib criticized the resolution saying it normalized violence against people living in the occupied West Bank and gave Netanyahu’s government approval to continue to expand Jewish settlements.

“We’re here again reaffirming Congress’ support for apartheid,” said Tlaib on Tuesday during a floor debate on the GOP measure. “Policing the words of women of color who dare to speak up about truths, about oppression.”

During a meeting on Tuesday in the Oval Office with President Joe Biden, Herzog sought to assure him that Israel continues to remain committed to democracy amid deepening U.S. concerns over PM Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul his country’s judicial system. 

Netanyahu and his allies say restructuring Israel’s judicial system is necessary to rein in the powers of unelected judges. But, opponents say the plan will destroy Israel’s delicate system of checks and balances and move the country toward an authoritarian rule. 

For his part, Herzog has appealed for a compromise that has since proven elusive. When addressing Congress, he stressed the importance of an “independent judiciary” and emphasized that Israelis were engaged in a crucial debate, “renegotiating the balance of our institutional powers.”

Several Democrat lawmakers and American Jewish groups have expressed concerns about Netanyahu’s court plan.

Herzog’s visit comes weeks after Israeli forces carried out intensive West Bank operations

Herzog’s visit follows weeks after Israeli forces carried out one of their most intensive operations in the occupied West Bank in two decades, with a two-day ground and air offensive in militant stronghold Jenin. Senior Netanyahu government officials have been pushing for increased construction and other measures to solidify Israel’s control over the occupied West Bank in response to a yearlong wave of violence with the Palestinians.

Officials in the U.S. have broadly supported Israel’s right to defend itself from militant attacks. They have also urged restraint to minimize harm to civilians and continue to lobby against additional settlements that would further diminish the chances of securing a two-state solution between the Palestinians and Israel.

Herzog didn’t explicitly mention any significant policy differences between the Israelis and Palestinians, including disagreements over settlements. 

Before Herzog’s visit, President Biden spoke with Netanyahu by phone and invited him to meet in the United States this fall. However, the president expressed reservations about several policies from Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition. 

White House visits from Israeli prime ministers are typically standard protocol; the delay receiving Netanyahu has become an issue in Israel, with opponents citing it as a reflection of the deteriorating relations with the U.S.

Much of Herzog’s Wednesday address evoked the two countries’ political, strategic, and cultural connections in similar 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,” said Herzog.

President Herzog planned to return to the White House Wednesday to meet with Vice President Kamala Harris. The VP’s office said the leaders will announce that both governments plan to spend $70 million over five years to support climate-smart agriculture programs.