Herzog’s ‘important’ speech to Congress wins plaudits from across political spectrum

Netanyahu hails president for presenting ‘our strong and decisive position against Iran’ to US lawmakers while Lapid says he showed ‘the beautiful face of democratic Israel’

President Isaac Herzog addresses a Joint Session of Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, July 19, 2023. (Saul Loeb/AFP)
President Isaac Herzog addresses a Joint Session of Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, July 19, 2023. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Israeli politicians from across the spectrum offered praise for President Isaac Herzog’s address Wednesday to a joint session of the US Congress, in a rare moment of cross-aisle unity amid increasingly fractious divisions over the judicial overhaul.

However, the focus of the reactions varied, with political leaders emphasizing different themes stressed by Herzog, whose speech hailed Israel’s democracy and independent judiciary, touted ties between Jerusalem and Washington, and reiterated Israeli opposition to Iran’s nuclear program.

Immediately as Herzog finished speaking, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the address “an important speech by the country’s president… who expressed our strong and decisive position against Iran.”

“Together we will stand, together we will win,” Netanyahu said.

Energy Minister Israel Katz also welcomed Herzog’s remarks on Iran. “The world must come to its sense and fight with more determination and aggression against a nuclear Iran,” he said.

Economy Minister Nir Barkat called the president’s speech “impressive and important,” saying it “reflected Israeli values, the deep partnership with our most important greatest ally, and our shared firm stance against those who wish us ill.”

President Isaac Herzog speaks to a joint session of US Congress, July 19, 2023, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Shas leader Aryeh Deri, one of Netanyahu’s key coalition partners, offered effusive praise for “my fried the President Isaac Herzog’s… important address.”

“You represented Israel brilliantly,” the ultra-Orthodox party leader wrote on Twitter.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, whose far-right Religious Zionism faction is a driving force behind the judicial shakeup, thanked Herzog for his “important speech” in a tweet, without elaborating.

On the other side of the political divide, opposition leader Yair Lapid congratulated Herzog on the speech, saying he showed “the beautiful face of democratic Israel, and stressed our shared values: equal rights, freedom of speech, separation of powers and an independent judiciary.”

National Unity chief Benny Gantz cheered the speech, calling the United States “our greater friend, with which we have shared values and interests.”

“With the many challenges facing Israel — from the Iranian nuclear threat, to the fight against terror to the internal crisis we are experiencing now — the alliance with our greatest friend is more important than ever and we must continue to safeguard it and develop it,” Gantz said, in apparent reference to recent tensions between Netanyahu’s government and the Biden administration.

In a rare condemnation, MK Aida Touma-Sliman of the predominantly Arab Hadash-Ta’al alliance railed at Herzog for “whitewashing Netanyahu‘s fascist government‘s crimes in front of Congress.”

“By cheering them and reiterating the ‘unbreakable bond,’ the US is complicit in these crimes,” she wrote in a tweet.

President Joe Biden and Israel’s President Isaac Herzog speak in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (Chris Kleponis)

Herzog’s address to Congress came a day after he was hosted at the White House by US President Joe Biden, who he assured that Israel’s democracy is “strong and resilient.” Their meeting came as tens of thousands protested in Israel against the government’s plans to weaken the courts, as it moves forward with a bill to block the judiciary from scrutinizing the “reasonableness” of government decisions.

“We shall always seek to find an amicable consensus, and I agree with you on that as well. I am pursuing that even in these very moments… in order to find solutions and emerge from this crisis properly,” Herzog told Biden during their Oval Office meet.

After weighing in several times in recent months to warn Netanyahu’s government against advancing the original version of its overhaul and to only adopt judicial reforms that have consensus support, Biden notably made no mention of the issue during his comments before the press.

The US president kept his remarks overwhelmingly positive, highlighting his commitment to the Jewish state and to the US-Israel relationship before running through a brief list of accomplishments in the Middle East.

Privately though, Biden told Herzog that it was vital for coalition and opposition leaders to strike a compromise on judicial reform, according to an Israeli official who shared details with reporters after the meeting on condition of anonymity.

From Washington, Herzog is due to travel to New York City for the weekend and will meet UN chief Antonio Guterres, NY Governor Kathy Hochul, NYC Mayor Eric Adams and Jewish community leaders.

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