Last week, for only the second time in history, a president of Israel addressed a joint session of Congress. President Isaac Herzog was warmly greeted by a lengthy standing ovation.
What followed was a carefully crafted presentation in which Herzog highlighted Israel’s close and enduring relationship with the United States and discussed Israel’s history and today’s reality, democracy, shared values, alliances, protesters and regional challenges and opportunities. The speech lasted for 40 minutes and was repeatedly interrupted with standing ovations.
Herzog, who as president occupies a figurehead position, spoke with pride about the strength of Israel’s democracy as it tries to deal with continuing internal conflict relating to the government’s judicial overhaul plan.
Herzog’s three-month effort to broker a compromise fell apart last month. He was frank in acknowledging the problem: “The momentous debate in Israel is painful and deeply unnerving because it highlights the cracks within the whole.” Nonetheless, he is hopeful: “Although we are working through some issues … I know our democracy is strong and resilient. Israel has democracy in its DNA.”
Herzog described the disruptive threat of Iran and its nuclear program as “perhaps the greatest challenge Israel and the United States face at this time.” And he asserted that “allowing Iran to become a nuclear threshold state – whether by omission or commission – is unacceptable.” He urged that “backed by the free world, Israel and the United States must act forcefully together to prevent Iran’s fundamental threat to international security.”
On regional issues, Herzog noted the lasting success of Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and was effusive in his praise for the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords. He thanked the Biden administration for its efforts to expand the accords to include Saudi Arabia which he said would be “a huge sea change in the course of history in the Middle East.”
Herzog said little about Israel’s ongoing difficulties with the Palestinians and nothing about a potential solution, except that he has a “deep yearning for Israel to one day make peace with our Palestinian neighbors.” He pointed to his “political differences” with Palestinian leadership and asserted to applause that “one cannot talk about peace by condoning or legitimizing terror. True peace cannot be anchored in violence.”
Herzog’s most forceful comments came when he talked about critics of Israel, including some members of the progressive caucus in Congress who have vilified Israel and boycotted his speech. Herzog declared: “I am not oblivious to criticism among friends, including some expressed by respected members of this House.”
But he warned: “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.” The remark generated another standing ovation.
There were no surprises in Herzog’s remarks. But he hit all the right notes and generated a lot of bipartisan good feelings in the House chamber and beyond. It was a special moment of pride for President Herzog, for Israel and the pro-Israel community, and a wonderful way to mark Israel’s 75th anniversary.■