More ‘Squad’ Democrats join Omar-led boycott of Herzog congressional address

Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez bring number of lawmakers skipping president’s July 19 speech to four

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., left, talks with IIhan Omar, D-Minn., right, as they walk on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, November 15, 2018. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., left, talks with IIhan Omar, D-Minn., right, as they walk on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, November 15, 2018. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Three US lawmakers said they planned to boycott Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s speech to a joint session of Congress next week, joining a colleague who scoffed that there was “no way in hell” she would attend.

Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush‘s offices each confirmed that they would not be attending the July 19 speech, backing Rep. Ilhan Omar, who was the first to make such a decision on Wednesday.

All four lawmakers are part of the so-called Squad of progressive Democrats and additional members of the eight-member group are expected to follow suit.

Few others, though, are expected to blackball Herzog, whose figurehead role and ties to Israel’s peace camp make him a far less divisive figure than many other Israeli leaders, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Bowman was the only lawmaker of the three latest additions to the list who offered comment on his decision, telling the right-wing newspaper Epoch Times that “I don’t think Israel has gone far enough in protecting and uplifting Palestinian rights and Palestinian lives.”

The New York congressman has become increasingly critical of Israel since entering Congress in 2021 after defeating incumbent Elliot Engel, who was backed heavily by mainstream pro-Israel groups.

Bowman voted in favor of supplemental Iron Dome missile defense system funding for Israel in September 2021. He also visited Israel and the West Bank in December 2021 with J Street.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman during a visit at a Palestinian school in Hebron, on November 10, 2021. (Jamaal Bowman/Twitter)

But he has since dropped support for a bill aimed at expanding the Abraham Accords, telling constituents that the agreements serve to isolate the Palestinians and do not advance a just outcome.

Ocasio-Cortez has similarly grown increasingly critical of Israel since entering Congress in 2019. She voted to abstain on the Iron Dome funding legislation and like Bowman, she co-sponsored legislation introduced last year by Palestinian-American Rep. Rashida Tlaib that would’ve seen the US formally recognize the Palestinian “Nakba” or “catastrophe” that coincided with the establishment of Israel.

In 2021, Ocasio-Cortez submitted a proposal, later defeated, aimed at blocking a $735 million missile sale to Israel. After backlash from pro-Palestinian activists, she withdrew from a September 2020 scheduled speaking appearance at an event honoring the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, which was organized by the left-wing Americans for Peace Now.

In this Aug. 5, 2020, file photo, Activist Cori Bush speaks during a news conference Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, in St. Louis. Bush is a Ferguson protester who is running for Congress. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

Bush has taken even more hardline positions against Israel, expressing support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and joining eight other lawmakers in voting against the Iron Dome funding legislation.

Tlaib and nearly a dozen prospective boycotters have through Friday afternoon refrained from comment on whether they’ll attend Herzog’s speech.

As the boycott announcements came trickling in, the Democratic Party’s leader in the House Rep. Hakeem Jeffries sought to send a different message.

He told reporters at a press conference Friday that Herzog “has been a force for good in Israeli society.”

“Because Israel is such an important part of the Middle East, because we have such a special relationship with Israel and because Israel is an important part of the global community… I look forward to welcoming him with open arms when he comes to speak before Congress next Wednesday,” he added.

Herzog is slated to give the speech marking Israel’s 75th anniversary on Wednesday after receiving an invitation last year by then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi, which current Speaker Kevin McCarthy reissued earlier this year.

President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem, June 14, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In her post on Wednesday, Omar wrote, “There is no way in hell I am attending.”

“We should not be inviting the president of Israel — a government who under its current prime minister barred the first two Muslim women elected to Congress from visiting the country — to give a joint address to Congress,” Omar tweeted in all caps, noting that 2019 ban had meant fellow Muslim congresswoman Rashida Tlaib was unable to visit her grandmother who lives in the West Bank.

While Herzog is seen as a more palatable figure for many Democrats who have long soured on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Omar’s announcement demonstrated that animosity toward Israel runs much deeper than any particular government.

At the same time, the hardline nature of the current coalition is sure to make it easier for other progressive lawmakers to follow Omar’s lead.

While Omar recognized that Herzog is a head of state rather than a head of government and does not dictate policy, she characterized him as a “faithful policy ambassador” 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.”

The Democratic congresswoman was quoting Netanyahu, who reportedly told fellow Likud lawmakers last month that Israel “needs to crush [the Palestinian] ambition” for an independent state.

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