By Ron Kampeas
WASHINGTON (JTA) — In his speech to a joint session of Congress, Israeli President Isaac Herzog made sure to repeatedly laud the warm ties between the United States and Israel. And he got the response Israeli leaders have traditionally received from U.S. lawmakers, earning at least 16 bipartisan standing ovations.
But one of his biggest applause lines also alluded to the tension that surrounded his 41-minute speech and that has weighed on the alliance he has come to Washington, D.C. to safeguard.
“Criticism of Israel must not cross the line into negation of the State of Israel’s right to exist,” Herzog said to cheers. “Questioning the Jewish people’s right to self-determination is not legitimate diplomacy, it is antisemitism.”
It was undoubtedly a reference to comments earlier this week by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state who chairs the party’s powerful Progressive Caucus. She told pro-Palestinian protesters at a progressive event that she understood Israel is a “racist state” — a remark she later walked back, saying she was criticizing the policies of Israel’s government, which includes senior far-right partners.
Jayapal’s statement was just one piece of the troubled atmosphere that has accompanied Herzog’s visit this week. A number of progressive lawmakers boycotted his speech, and in Israel, ongoing protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s effort to weaken the judiciary have grown fiercer.
That planned judicial overhaul — a key portion of which may pass into law soon — is one reason why President Joe Biden waited until this week to invite Netanyahu to meet him in the U.S. Israel’s minister for Diaspora affairs, meanwhile, recently accused Biden of colluding with the opposition to foment the protests.
So while there were cheers, laughter and mutual expressions of support during Herzog’s address, there was also melancholy — a recognition that change was inevitable and, for proponents of the U.S.-Israel alliance, not necessarily for the better.
“I am well aware that our world is changing,” Herzog said. “A new generation of Israelis and Americans are assuming leadership roles. A generation that was not privy to the hardship of Israel’s formative years. 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.”
Israel and its traditional defenders in the United States are wary of what appears to be growing skepticism of the country on the American left. For the first time this year, Democrats were more likely to sympathize with Palestinians than with Israelis, a Gallup poll showed.
To that effect, Jayapal’s statement raised alarm among pro-Israel members of Congress. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee pushed lawmakers to quickly draft and pass a resolution on Tuesday saying that “the State of Israel is not a racist or apartheid state; Congress rejects all forms of antisemitism and xenophobia; and the United States will always be a staunch partner and supporter of Israel.”
It passed 412-9, demonstrating that the powerhouse lobby can still garner massive pro-Israel majorities. But the resolution was notably initiated by Republicans, and they were the majority of its sponsors. On Wednesday, six House Democrats associated with the progressive “Squad” boycotted Herzog’s speech.
Bernie Sanders, the Jewish senator from Vermont who is the informal leader of the progressive movement, also did not attend. He did not state that he was boycotting the speech but criticized the Israeli government in a statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
“It is no great secret that I strongly oppose the policies of Israel’s right wing, anti-Palestinian government,” he said in the statement. “We provide them with $3.8 billion in aid. We have a right to demand they respect human rights.”
Herzog also aimed to reassure his audience that the fight over the proposed judicial overhaul would not spell the end of Israel’s democracy — though he said the raucous and often acrimonious debate has been “painful, and deeply unnerving, because it highlights the cracks within the whole.”
“I have great confidence in Israeli democracy,” he went on. “Although we are working through sore issues, just like you, I know our democracy is strong and resilient. Israel has democracy in its DNA.”
In remarks to the Israeli press yesterday, Herzog also doubled down on the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
“It’s not like the relationship between the United States and countries that are very important to it,” he said. “This is a relationship with deep family elements, with mutual concern about what happens in the United States and of course in Israel.”
Herzog also got bipartisan applause for emphasizing points that Biden does not necessarily agree with, opposing any agreement with Iran that does not cut off its path to a nuclear weapon, and principally blaming the Palestinians for the decade-long impasse in substantial peace talks.
Questions about the durability of the two countries’ bond have become sharper as Biden has urged Netanyahu to slow the pace of the judicial overhaul effort in order to reach a broad consensus across Israeli society. This week, Biden invited Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, to the Oval Office to deliver a warning about how the judicial legislation could harm U.S.-Israel ties — a signal that Biden believes he did not get through to Netanyahu on a recent phone call between the two leaders.
“Finding consensus on controversial areas of policy means taking the time you need,” Biden told Friedman. “For significant changes, that’s essential. So my recommendation to Israeli leaders is not to rush. I believe the best outcome is to continue to seek the broadest possible consensus here.”
Herzog has also focused his efforts on negotiations over the court reform, and has urged Israelis to take Biden’s critique seriously. He met with Biden on Tuesday and was set to meet later on Wednesday with Vice President Kamala Harris. They are expected to announce a joint U.S.-Israel five-year initiative to advance climate-friendly agriculture research and techniques.
“Israel is very important to the world, it’s very important to the region, it’s very important to the United States, and that must also be a consideration to our brothers and sisters in Israel,” he told the Israeli media.
One of his guests at the speech, whom he recognized, was Susannah Heschel, the daughter of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights era. The elder Heschel is emblematic of a liberal American Jewish sensibility that has often clashed with Netanyahu’s outlook.
In one of the rare lines that got more applause from Democrats than from Republicans, Herzog attempted to show that a pluralist sensibility was present in Israel, too.
“Our democracy is also late Friday afternoon,” he said, “when the sound of the muezzin calling to prayer blends with the siren announcing the Sabbath in Jerusalem, while one of the largest and most impressive LGBTQ Pride Parades in the world is going on in Tel Aviv.”
Photo Caption: Israeli President Isaac Herzog addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress at the U.S. Capitol, July 19, 2023. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)