WASHINGTON — President Isaac Herzog told a joint session of the US Congress on Wednesday that Israel’s democracy is based on an independent judiciary and that he was doing everything he could to secure consensus backing for legal reforms as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government advances judicial overhaul legislation back home.
The speech in a House chamber filled with lawmakers from both bodies of Congress was the second ever by an Israeli president, with the last one given 35 years ago by Herzog’s father Chaim. It came amid a sustained strain in ties between Netanyahu’s government and the administration of US President Joe Biden, which again pleaded with Jerusalem hours earlier not to rush through with its effort to radically curb the judiciary’s power, and rather take the time necessary to secure broad support for reform.
The president’s statements touting the strength of Israel’s democracy and its independent judiciary elicited cheers from Congress, amid worries that changes championed by Netanyahu’s government could put Israel’s status as a liberal democracy in doubt.
“Although we are working through sore issues, just like you, I know our democracy is strong and resilient. Israel has democracy in its DNA,” Herzog declared to loud applause.
He emphasized the need for consensus on the judicial overhaul in the 41-minute speech, which elicited some 30 standing ovations.
“As head of state, I will continue doing everything to reach a broad public consensus, and to preserve, protect and defend the State of Israel’s democracy,” he said.
Herzog hosted three months of negotiations with representatives from the coalition and opposition aimed at reaching a compromise on judicial reform, but those talks fell apart in June, and the coalition has since resumed advancement of the overhaul starting with a bill curbing judicial review that it plans to pass next week.
“I am well aware of the imperfections of Israeli democracy, and I am conscious of the questions posed by our greatest of friends. The momentous debate in Israel is painful, and deeply unnerving, because it highlights the cracks within the whole,” Herzog said, referencing the impact that the government’s effort to overhaul the judiciary has had on the broader public, where opponents have flooded the streets for 28 straight weeks.
Those protests have extended beyond Israel’s borders and hundreds of Israeli ex-pats gathered outside the Capitol ahead of Herzog’s speech chanting slogans against the overhaul. They also thanked Biden for his public expressions of concern regarding the Netanyahu government’s overhaul plans.
Herzog’s speech (full text here) was laced with references to the deep historic bond between the countries, name-checking former US president Abraham Lincoln, civil rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the late chief rabbi of England Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He also discussed Israel’s concerns about Iran, its desire for peace with its neighbors and hailed the Jewish state’s relationship with its “irreplaceable” ally the United States. But his comments regarding the overhaul, which also reportedly came up during Tuesday’s Oval Office meeting, were the most closely watched.
Israel’s democracy, he stressed, is “based on free and fair elections, on honoring the people’s choice, on safeguarding minority rights, on protection of human and civil liberties, and on a strong and independent judiciary.” The intense protests taking place back home demonstrate the strength of that democracy, he argued.
Critics of the overhaul say it will remove the judiciary’s independence, a key democratic foundation that it has long boasted of sharing with the United States.
“Our democracy is also late Friday afternoon, when the sound of the Muezzin calling to prayer, blends with the siren announcing the Sabbath in Jerusalem, while one of the largest and most impressive LGBTQ Pride Parades in the world is going on in Tel Aviv,” he said in one of the few lines that only garnered applause from half of the chamber, as the vast majority of Republicans refused to stand in support of a pride parade.
He touted his role as broker of the recently collapsed compromise negotiations but insisted he would continue to try and foster dialogue between opposing sides of the overhaul debate. “I will say to you, our friends, in English, what I have said to my people, to my sisters and brothers, in Hebrew: as a nation, we must find the way to talk to each other no matter how long it takes.”
Highlighting the difficulty of the task, hours after the speech, National Unity Party head Benny Gantz offered to restart talks, conditioned on the ruling Likud party committing to negotiate all aspects of the overhaul. Netanyahu’s party swiftly rejected the proposal.
Regional challenges and opportunities
Turning to Israel’s external threats, Herzog characterized the Iranian nuclear program as “perhaps the greatest challenge Israel and the United States face at this time.”
“Allowing Iran to become a nuclear threshold state – whether by omission or by diplomatic commission – is unacceptable,” he said to applause.
Both the US and Israel have stated that they are committed to blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon but Jerusalem has opposed Washington’s efforts to do so diplomatically and has insisted that the US must present a credible military threat in order to thwart Tehran.
“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 said. “Backed by the free world, Israel and the United States must act forcefully together to prevent Iran’s fundamental threat to international security.”
The Israeli president then went on to tout Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan that were brokered by the US and have “revolutionized the Middle East.” However, he was more effusive in his praise of the US-brokered Abraham Accords, which he described as “a peace anchored in trust, hope and prosperity. A true game changer.”
He also made a point of thanking the Biden administration for its efforts to expand the Abraham Accords to include Saudi Arabia. “We pray for this moment to come. This would be a huge sea change in the course of history in the Middle East and the world at large.”
Biden officials say they are committed to brokering such an agreement but have warned in recent weeks that Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and the societal schism caused by the judicial overhaul have made a deal all but impossible to achieve.
Herzog insisted that he has a “deep yearning for Israel to one day make peace with our Palestinian neighbors,” leading large numbers of Democrats to jump out of their seats in applause.
The president acknowledged “political differences” with the Palestinian leadership but asserted to applause that “one cannot talk about peace while condoning or legitimizing terror, implicitly or explicitly. True peace cannot be anchored in violence.”
“Palestinian terror against Israel or Israelis undermines any possibility for a future of peace between our peoples.” he added, claiming that attacks are celebrated and their perpetrators are glorified.
“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. A future of hope. I am wholeheartedly committed to this vision, a vision of hope and peace, true peace, without any terror.”
Herzog then turned to Leah Goldin, who was seated beside his wife Michal in the gallery above the lawmakers. Goldin’s son Hadar was killed during the 2014 Gaza war and his body has since been held captive by Hamas in the coastal enclave along with that of Oron Shaul. Hamas is also holding Hisham al-sayed, and Avera Mengistu mentally ill civilians who crossed into Gaza over a decade ago.
“I asked Hadar Goldin’s mother, Leah, to be here with us today. We pray for her son’s return, as well as the three other Israelis,” she said as Goldin stood and lawmakers applauded.
A new chapter
Herzog went on to boast about the close ties between Israel and the US — “A mutually beneficial partnership that has withstood challenges and weathered great disagreements, because it is based not on uniformity of approach, but on the ultimate currency of trust.”
He said the relationship is also “rooted deep in our respective declarations of independence. In the American Declaration of Independence, the founders appealed to the ‘Supreme Judge of the World’. In the Israeli Declaration of Independence, influenced by America’s, our founders placed their trust in ‘the Rock of Israel.'”
“Ultimately, Israel and the United States stand — and indeed, have always stood for the same values. Our two nations are both diverse, life-affirming societies that stand for liberty, equality, and freedom,” Herzog claimed.
He acknowledged though that a generational shift in both countries with younger Americans and Israelis “less engaged in the roots that connect our peoples” and that “perhaps takes for granted the US-Israel relationship.”
Herzog appeared to be referencing the growing number of progressives who are uncomfortable with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the growing number of conservatives who argue that criticizing the Israeli government amounts to antisemitism.
“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 to some laughs from the crowd.
While the chamber was nearly full, seven progressive Democrats boycotted Herzog’s speech. One of them, Palestinian-American Rep. Rashida Tlaib, branded Israel as an apartheid state in remarks a day earlier ahead of a vote on a pro-Israel resolution.
While he didn’t announce a boycott ahead of time, Sen. Bernie Sanders stayed out of the chamber for the speech, saying in a statement afterward, “It’s no great secret that I strongly oppose the policies of Israel’s right wing, anti-Palestinian government. We provide them with $3.8 billion in aid. We have a right to demand they respect human rights.”
Other progressives were on site, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who warmly shook Herzog’s hand before he reached the podium.
That Republican-led initiative was sparked by the head of the progressive caucus calling Israel a “racist state” on Saturday before apologizing.
“Criticism of Israel must not cross the line into negation of the State of Israel’s right to exist,” he said in a line that seemed to get the most excited applause out of any other in the speech.
“Questioning the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, is not legitimate diplomacy, it is antisemitism,” Herzog declared.
He praised Biden for unveiling in May a government-wide plan to combat antisemitism, which notably garnered applause from both Democrats and Republicans.
“To us, it is clear that America is irreplaceable to Israel, and Israel is irreplaceable to America. It is time to design the next stage of our evolving friendship and our growing partnership together,” he said.