Israeli president promises to ‘protect and defend’ democracy in face of judicial crisis

Israeli President Issac Herzog
Greg Nash
Israeli President Issac Herzog is seen after addressing a joint meeting of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, July 19, 2023.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog promised Wednesday to “protect and defend” Israel’s democracy as it faces a crisis over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pursuit of a judicial overhaul that has drawn unprecedented criticism from the U.S.

In a speech to a joint meeting of Congress marking Israel’s 75th anniversary, Herzog called Israeli protests against Netanyahu and his government “painful, and deeply unnerving, because it highlights the cracks within the whole.” 

President Biden has urged Netanyahu to work with Herzog to reach an agreement with the political opposition to abandon some of the most controversial measures of the government’s judicial overhaul plan, which critics say would neuter the country’s Supreme Court and undermine its democracy. 

“As head of state, I will continue doing everything to reach a broad public consensus, and to preserve, protect and defend the state of Israel’s democracy,” Herzog said to lawmakers.

Herzog’s visit to Washington, and his address to Congress, served as an attempt by the Biden administration to bridge the divides in his party — reinforcing Democratic support for Israel without legitimizing Netanyahu’s controversial government. 

Biden spoke with Netanyahu Monday as the Israeli president arrived in Washington and agreed to meet in the fall in the United States, but has not yet extended an explicit invitation to the White House.

Democratic divisions were apparent Wednesday, when at least seven progressives skipped the Israeli president’s speech. They included Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Cori Bush (Mo.), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) and Pramila Jayapal (Wash.). 

Some of those lawmakers have denounced Israel as an apartheid state and condemned Netanyahu’s government as racist — critical of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, its settlement activity in the West Bank and saying that the judicial overhaul will worsen the situation. 

Herzog addressed those statements head-on.

“I am not oblivious to criticism among friends, including some expressed by respected members of this House,” he said, adding that while he respects the criticism, “One does not always have to accept it,” which elicited laughs and claps in the chamber.

His remarks came one day after the House overwhelmingly approved a resolution affirming that Israel “is not a racist or apartheid state” and that the U.S. “will always be a staunch partner and supporter of Israel,” while also condemning xenophobia and antisemitism.

The final vote was 412-9-1, with all opposition coming from progressive Democrats — some of whom boycotted Wednesday’s speech.

The resolution was drawn up in reaction to remarks by Jayapal, the chair of the Progressive Caucus, who, during a progressive conference in Chicago over the weekend, said that “Israel is a racist state.” 

The comment drew vocal bipartisan criticism, and Jayapal later apologized, walked back her remarks and focused her criticism on the Netanyahu government.

Jayapal did not attend Herzog’s speech, with a Democratic aide saying in a statement that her absence was due to “scheduling conflicts.” She did, however, support the resolution Tuesday.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog addresses a joint meeting of Congress on July 19, 2023.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog addresses a joint meeting of Congress on July 19, 2023.

One of the loudest applause lines came when Herzog warned that criticism of Israel should 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 added.

While Herzog’s roughly 40-minute remarks were overwhelmingly celebrated by both sides of the chamber, some Republicans stayed seated while other lawmakers stood to applaud the Israeli president describing Israel as hosting “the largest and most impressive LGBTQ pride parades.” 

Still, the chamber was filled with lawmakers proclaiming support for Israel — with the U.S. and Israel working closely together to counter threats from Iran and its nuclear ambitions and to advance efforts to establish ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

“Israel thanks the United States for working towards establishing peaceful relations between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a leading nation in the region and in the Muslim world,” Herzog said.

“We pray for this moment to come. This would be a huge sea change in the course of history in the Middle East and the world at large.”

The remark received an overwhelming bipartisan standing ovation. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the ranking member on the Judiciary committee who is Jewish, held up Israel’s flag during the Israeli president’s remarks.

Herzog said that his deepest “yearning … is for Israel to one day make peace with our Palestinian neighbors” — comments that drew a bipartisan standing ovation — but called out Palestinian attacks against Israelis as undermining possibilities for a future peace. 

“Notwithstanding the deep political differences, and the numerous challenges that surround Israeli-Palestinian relations — and I do not ignore them — but it should be clear that one cannot talk about peace while condoning or legitimizing terror, implicitly or explicitly. True peace cannot be anchored in violence,” he said. 

Herzog thanked the U.S. for its “commitment to Israel’s security,” but noted that the relationship is a “two-way alliance, in which Israel has been making critical contributions to the national security and interests of the United States in numerous ways.” 

To date, the U.S. has provided $158 billion in bilateral assistance and missile defense, according to the Congressional Research Service, although that number is not adjusted for inflation. 

The Obama administration negotiated two 10-year agreements that provided Israel $30 billion through 2018, and $33.8 billion between 2019 and 2028. 

In 2021, Congress appropriated an additional $1 billion to restock Israel’s missile defense system, Iron Dome, but that was largely delayed over opposition from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)

Herzog is only the second Israeli president to address Congress. His father, Chaim Herzog, marked Israel’s 40th anniversary with a joint speech to Congress in 1987. 

He called it “the honor of a lifetime” to follow in his father’s footsteps, and he paid notice to his other deep family roots in his speech, referencing how his grandfather, the chief rabbi of the newly established state of Israel, met with then-President Truman in the White House in 1949. 

The president’s brother, Michael Herzog, is Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S.

“To us, it is clear that America is irreplaceable to Israel, and Israel is irreplaceable to America. It is time to design the next stage of our evolving friendship and our growing partnership together,” Herzog said in his speech. 

“Israel and the United States will inevitably disagree on many matters. But we will always remain family.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Benjamin Netanyahu Cori Bush Ilhan Omar Isaac Herzog Jamaal Bowman Jerrold Nadler Joe Biden Pramila Jayapal Rand Paul Rashida Tlaib Raul Grijalva US-Israel relations

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more