Israeli president Herzog addresses criticisms of Israel in joint address to Congress

Israeli President Isaac Herzog delivered a joint address to Congress to large fanfare despite recent divisions within the Democratic Party about Israel.

Mr Herzog acknowledged the fact that some Democrats chose not to attend his joint address.

“I respect criticism, especially among friends, although one does not always have to accept it,” he said. “But criticism of Israel must not cross the line into negation of the State of Israel’s right to exist.”

Mr Herzog’s address came a day after the House of Representatives passed a resolution 412 to 9 reaffirming US support for Israel and saying that Israel “is not a racist or apartheid state” as well as rejecting “all forms of antisemitism and xenophobia.”

The resolution came after Rep Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) called Israel “a racist state,” which she later clarified. Many of the Democrats who voted against the legislation – such as Reps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Cori Bush (D-MO) – also elected not to attend Mr Herzog’s speech.

“Questioning the Jewish people’s right to self-determination is not legitimate diplomacy, it is antisemitism,” he said to large applause. “Vilifying and attacking Jews, whether in Israel, in the United States or anywhere in the world is antisemitism.”

Mr Herzog defended Israel’s record on human rights and minority protections.

“Our democracy is also reflected in protesters taking to the streets all across the country to emphatically raise their voices and fervently demonstrate their point of view,” he said. Israel is currently facing a series of protests about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed plan to reform the judiciary.

“I am well aware of the imperfections of Israeli democracy, and I am conscious of the questions posed by our greatest of friends,” he said. “The momentous debate in Israel is painful and deeply unnerving, because it highlights the cracks within the whole.”

The Israeli president spoke about his family’s longstanding ties to the United States, including the fact that his father, Chaim Herzog, was the first president to address a joint session of Congress. He addressed Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who travelled to Israel earlier this year to commemorate Israel’s 75th anniversary.

“Your sincere expression of friendship on behalf of the United States truly resonated with the Israelis,” he said. He also thanked Vice President Kamala Harris for her support.

Mr Herzog noted the overwhelming bipartisan support for the state of Israel and the Jewish people going back to Harry Truman’s recognition of the state of Israel in 1948. Mr Truman’s grandson Clinton Truman Daniel received applause when Mr Herzog mentioned his presence in the chamber.

He also mentioned Abraham Lincoln calling for Jewish people returning to their homeland and the efforts of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in America to support civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr.

“The people of Israel are grateful to no end for the ancient promise fulfilled and for the friendship we have formed,” he said.

Despite these divides, most of the US Congress filled out the House chamber for the joint address and gave Mr Herzog roaring applause throughout his address, specifically when he spoke about the need to prevent a nuclear Iran.

“Let there be no doubt: Iran does not strive to attain nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” he said. “Iran is building nuclear capabilities that pose a threat to the stability of the Middle and beyond. Every country or region controlled or infiltrated by Iran has experienced utter havoc.”

He also called to continue building on peace agreements with Israel’s Arab neighbours such as Jordan and Egypt, as well as the Abraham Accords, former president Donald Trump’s peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Morocco and Bahrain.

“This is a peace anchored in trust, hope and prosperity,” he said. “Each of these historic agreements, which have altered the trajectory of the Middle East, was facilitated by our greatest friend, the United States of America.”

He also called for Israel to establish peace with the Palestinians. Many of the progressive Democrats who boycotted Mr Herzog’s speech did so because of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

“Israel has taken bold steps towards peace and made far reaching proposals to our Palestinian neighbors,” he said.

He said that the United States and Israel’s support for each other was in each other’s best interest.

“When the United States is strong, Israel is stronger, and when Israel is strong, the United States is more secure,” he said to applause.