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Israeli president focuses on 'friendship' with U.S. as progressives boycott speech

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

Updated July 19, 2023 at 1:46 PM ET

Israeli President Isaac Herzog emphasized the "true friendship" and "mutually beneficial partnership" between Israel and the U.S. during a joint meeting of Congress Wednesday morning, an event boycotted by a handful of progressive House Democrats concerned about the treatment of Palestinians.

"The people of Israel are grateful to no end for the ancient promise fulfilled and for the friendship we have forged," Herzog said, praising the recognition of the State of Israel by the U.S. 11 minutes after the nation was formed in 1948. "When the United States is strong, Israel is stronger. And when Israel is strong, the United States is more secure."

Herzog recalled watching his father address the U.S. Congress in 1987.

"Standing here today, representing the Jewish, democratic state of Israel in its 75th year, at the very podium from which my late father, President Chaim Herzog spoke, is the honor of a lifetime," he said.

During his 40-minute speech, Herzog called the Iranian nuclear program the "greatest challenge Israel and the United States face."

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"Allowing Iran to become a nuclear threshold state — whether by omission or by diplomatic commission — is unacceptable," he said to a standing ovation — one of 29 bipartisan standing ovations he received. "The world cannot remain indifferent to the Iranian regime's call to wipe Israel off the map. Tolerating this call and Iran's measures to realize it is an inexcusable moral collapse."

Herzog praised the Abraham Accords, a deal brokered by the Trump administration in 2020 to normalize relations between Israel and several Arab countries, including Morocco, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

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 it says targeted militants in the crowded Jenin refugee camp. Senior members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government have been pushing for increased construction in Jewish settlements and other measures to cement Israel's control over the occupied West Bank.

Netanyahu leads the most right-wing coalition in Israel's history. For months, tens of thousands of Israelis have held regular protests to oppose the coalitions plans for weakening the court system. Netanyahu's supporters say liberal Israeli courts place too many restrictions on the government's power. Opponents see it as a move to pave the way for right-wing or discriminatory policies.

Although Herzog's role as president is mostly ceremonial, he's been hosting negotiations about the coalition's plans.

Netanyahu has not yet made an official visit to D.C. in the six months since he returned to office, an indication of the tensions between his government and the Biden White House. However, during a phone conversation earlier this week, President Biden invited Netanyahu to a meeting in the U.S. later this year.

The Israeli president spent part of his speech defending Israel's democratic government, making a pointed note about the United States in the process.

"I have great confidence in Israeli democracy," he said. "Although we are working through sore issues, just like you, I know our democracy is strong and resilient."

Several progressive House members boycott the speech

A handful of House progressive lawmakers, including New York Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, Missouri Rep. Cori Bush, and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib did not attend Herzog's speech citing concerns for what they say are human rights abuses against Palestinians.

"My decision to not attend in no way stems from a lack of support for the existence of the State of Israel," Bowman said in a statement. "On the contrary, it is out of concern that there is no sense of urgency about ensuring the safety and security of all Israelis and Palestinians in the region and finally achieving a two-state solution."

Tlaib doubled down on her criticismof Israel's policies and Herzog himself during floor comments on Tuesday.

"I am the only Palestinian-American serving in Congress and I have family members all throughout the West Bank," Tlaib said. "But we're here again, reaffirming Congress' support for apartheid. Policing the words of women of color who dare to speak up about truths, about oppression, is just not what we should be doing here in Congress."

Days before the address, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, sparked outrage among members of her own party after she referred to Israel as a "racist state" during impromptu remarks to a group of pro-Palestinian protesters who had interrupted a panel she was on in Chicago.

"I want you to know that we have been fighting to make it clear that Israel is a racist state, that the Palestinian people deserve self-determination and autonomy, that the dream of a two-state solution is slipping away from us — that it doesn't even feel possible," she said at the time.

Jayapal apologized in a statementthe next day to "those who I have hurt with my words" and added that while she does "not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist," she "believe[s] that Netanyahu's "extreme right-wing government has engaged in discriminatory and outright racist policies."

House Democratic leaders were quick to respond in a joint statement saying that "Israel is not a racist state." Many rank-and-file Democrats also defended Israel as a democratic ally.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, seen here at the U.S. Capitol on May 31, sparked backlash among members of her own party over the weekend when she referred to Israel as "a racist state."
Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, seen here at the U.S. Capitol on May 31, sparked backlash among members of her own party over the weekend when she referred to Israel as "a racist state."

"I appreciate that she has since retracted the words and issued an apology," Illinois Rep. Brad Schneider, one of over 40 Democrats who signed a statement expressing concern over Jayapal's comments, told NPR. "The important thing to understand is that Israel is not a racist state. It's not a perfect state. And at the moment, there's members of the government who certainly express racist views. But that is not the country — it's not the total of the government."

Ohio Democratic Rep. Shontel Brown said she was "deeply disappointed that President Herzog's visit has coincided with unacceptable antisemitic remarks that crossed a line."

"While I appreciate my colleague's clarification, at a time of rising antisemitism in Ohio and nationwide, this kind of inflammatory rhetoric is dangerous," Brown said in a statement.

Schneider said it's "unfortunate" that members will be boycotting the speech.

"President Herzog is the one trying to find the common ground and bridge the differences to advance Israeli democracy. He's the one who is talking about pursuing peace and finding a pathway to preserve the possibility that when there is a partner among the Palestinians, there can be a two-state solution," he said. "If there's anyone that the folks who are most critical of Israel should come listen to, it should be President Isaac Herzog. They're cutting their own nose off to spite their face."

Herzog himself nodded to the recent controversy among House Democrats.

"I am not oblivious to the 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," he 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, whether in Israel, in the United States, or anywhere in the world is antisemitism."

Herzog also expressed his "deep yearning" for Israel to "one day make peace with our Palestinian neighbors."

"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," he said. "The younger generation of Israelis and Palestinians deserve better. They are all worthy of a future to look towards, a future of peace and prosperity."

House Republicans forced vote on reaffirming support for Israel to highlight potential Democratic divide

In response to Jayapal's comments, House Republicans brought forth a resolution to force Democrats to vote on whether Israel is a "racist state."

"Unfortunately, we've heard disgusting statements from members on the other side of the aisle against Israel," said Texas GOP Rep. August Pfluger, who introduced the resolution on Tuesday, saying a yes vote "should be easy."

I am not going to be bullied by their political games, and I'm not going to let them, you know, try to continue this debate. So I voted yes on the resolution, and I stand by my statement.

The lower chamber overwhelmingly passed the resolution, a vote Jayapal told reporters was "a political ploy by Republicans to target Democrats and try to divide us."

"I am not going to be bullied by their political games, and I'm not going to let them, you know, try to continue this debate. So I voted yes on the resolution, and I stand by my statement," she said after the vote.

Nine progressive Democratic lawmakers voted against it.

"I'm voting against this resolution. It was designed by MAGA Republicans to target and shame a colleague, Pramila Jayapal, for comments for which she apologized and clarified," Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar said in a statement.

Omar herself haspreviously apologizedfor comments that were condemned as antisemitic.

While Republican lawmakers were quick to denounce Jayapal's comments and attempt to link itto a broader conversation about antisemitism, Schneider pointed out the GOP has invited Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., to testify before Congress after falsely suggesting that COVID-19 may have been "ethnically targeted" to spare Chinese people and Ashkenazi Jews.

"There are folks in the Democratic Party who say things that are offensive, that are wrong, and I call them out," Schneider said. "That's different than leadership of the Republican Party, in this case, Speaker McCarthy, inviting a avowed conspiracy theorist who is spewing hateful and dangerous statements [to testify]."

"In this country, anyone can raise their hand and say, 'I want to run.' That's his prerogative. But in this building, in the House of Representatives, the leader and certainly the speaker has the prerogative to say, we're not going to give a microphone to a racist."

Schneider is part of a group of lawmakers who sent a letter to McCarthy and Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, who chairs the House Select Subcommittee on the weaponization of the federal government, asking them to disinvite Kennedy from a Thursday hearing.

On Monday, McCarthy told reporters he "disagrees with everything" Kennedy said, but indicated the invitation would not be withdrawn.

"The hearing that we have this week is about censorship. I don't think censoring somebody is actually the answer here," he said.

NPR's Larry Kaplow contributed to this report

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.