(WASHINGTON) — Israeli President Isaac Herzog addressed a joint meeting of Congress Wednesday morning, highlighting the foundations of the U.S.-Israel relationship in addition to addressing antisemitism amid tensions between Israel and some members of Congress.
Herzog received a standing ovation when entering the House chamber — a rare bipartisan display despite some Democrats expressing criticism of the nation’s leadership — and started his address reminiscing about 1987, when his father, then-President Chaim Herzog, spoke before Congress.
“That moment, in which I learned of the life he gave for the State of Israel, spoke to the very core of the bond forged between the people of the United States and the people of Israel, how the nations we built overcame loss, how deeply our stories complement each other, [and] how far we have all come, together,” Herzog said.
During his address, Herzog said the greatest challenge Israel and the United States face is the Iranian nuclear program.
“Let there be no doubt: Iran does not strive to attain nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Iran is building nuclear capabilities that pose a threat to the stability of the Middle East and beyond. Every country or region controlled or infiltrated by Iran has experienced utter havoc,” he said.
Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is a key priority of Israel, Herzog said.
“Allowing Iran to become a nuclear threshold state — whether by omission or by diplomatic commission — is unacceptable. The world cannot remain indifferent to the Iranian regime’s call to wipe Israel off the map,” he added.
Herzog said Israel has “taken bold steps toward peace” with its Palestinian neighbors but “true peace cannot be anchored in violence.”
He’s optimistic about a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and “it is time to design the next stage of our evolving friendship and our growing partnership together.”
“When the United States is strong, Israel is stronger. And when Israel is strong, the United States is more secure,” he said.
Attacking Jewish people anywhere in the world is antisemitism, Herzog said, highlighting President Joe Biden’s National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. Reported antisemitic incidents reached all-time high in 2022, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The Israeli president also alluded to recent remarks by some Democrats, including Jayapal, Ocasio-Cortez, and others, criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for his approach toward West Bank settlements.
“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,” he said, drawing laughs from the gallery.
“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 added.
Several House progressives were absent from the chamber, including Rep. Pramila Jayapal who walked back her initial comments that Israel is a “racist state” — remarks that resulted in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote affirming Israel is not a racist or apartheid state and condemning antisemitism. Jayapal voted for the resolution. Her office confirmed to ABC that she skipped the Wednesday address “due to scheduling conflicts.”
Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, Ilhan Omar, and Cori Bush, all of whom were among the nine House progressives who voted against the resolution on Tuesday, skipped Herzog’s address. Reps. Raul Grijalva and Nydia Velazquez, who supported the resolution, also did not attend.
Herzog also referenced protests over judicial reform in Israel — a key sticking point for House progressives — saying it’s “no secret that over the past few months, the Israeli people have engaged in a heated and painful debate.”
It’s an “intense debate” and is the “clearest tribute to the fortitude of Israel’s democracy,” he added.
Herzog closed his speech saying “Am Yisrael Chai,” which means “The Jewish nation lives.”
“God Bless the State of Israel and God Bless the United States of America,” he said, receiving a big standing ovation and cheers in the House chamber.
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