| 5 December 2023, Tuesday |

Israeli President Herzog to address Congress amid tensions with Washington

Israeli President Isaac Herzog will deliver a speech to Congress, capping a trip intended to reassure the United States that Israel’s democracy endures despite government efforts to reform the nation’s judicial system.

In a meeting with Herzog on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden emphasized the close links between two nations despite US difficulties with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration. Herzog holds a largely ceremonial post.

“Israeli democracy is tough and resilient and we should definitely see the current debate in Israel with all facets as a tribute to the strength of Israeli democracy,” Herzog told reporters at the White House grounds after meeting Biden.

Herzog follows his father, Chaim Herzog, who as president in 1987 was accorded the same rare honor of addressing a joint meeting of the U.S. House and Senate, one of the highest marks of esteem Washington affords foreign dignitaries.

The invitation was extended by the leaders of Congress last year to mark the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding.

The speech is not without controversy.

Ties have been strained over Israeli settlement expansion on the occupied West Bank and what Washington sees as dimming prospects for a two-state solution to relations with the Palestinians as well as a judicial overhaul.

The proposed overhaul, which has drawn street protests across Israel from critics who decry it as anti-democratic, included curbs on the Supreme Court’s authority while granting the government decisive powers in appointing judges.

A handful of the most progressive Democrats in Congress said they would boycott Herzog’s remarks.

Representative Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian-American, said on Twitter she would not attend. “I urge all Members of Congress who stand for human rights for all to join me,” she said, with a picture of herself holding a “Boycott Apartheid” sign on the Capitol steps.

Representatives Ilhan Omar, Jamaal Bowman and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also did not plan to attend.

Omar said on Twitter “there is no way in hell” she would be at the speech.

“Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address comes on behalf of the most right wing government in Israel’s history, at a time when the government is openly promising to ‘crush’ Palestinian hopes of statehood — essentially putting a nail in the coffin of peace and a two-state solution,” Omar said.

It is not unusual for members of Congress to miss foreign leaders’ addresses. Several skipped Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech to Congress in June, citing issues including rights concerns.

More than 50 Democrats stayed away from a 2015 speech to Congress by Netanyahu that was seen as an embrace of congressional Republicans and snub of then-Democratic President Barack Obama’s Iran policy. Biden, who was vice president and thus president of the Senate, also did not attend.

Herzog will meet with Vice President Kamala Harris in the afternoon, when a White House official said they will announce a joint five-year, $70 million initiative to support climate-smart agriculture to improve the use of critical water resources in the Middle East and Africa.

Biden and Herzog last met at the White House in October. Netanyahu returned to office in December.

On Monday, Biden invited Netanyahu to the United States for an official visit later this year.

Biden had held off extending the invitation out of concern over Jewish settlements and the planned judicial overhaul. Israelis have protested the plan for months, including on Tuesday.

Proponents of the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul say the country’s Supreme Court has become too interventionist and that the change will facilitate effective governance.

Opponents say the change will weaken the Supreme Court, which in a country that has no constitution and a one-chamber parliament that is dominated by the government – has a critical role in protecting civil rights and liberties.

  • Reuters