President Isaac Herzog mounted a strong defense of Israel’s democracy – “it is in our DNA” – in an enthusiastically applauded speech to a joint session of Congress. He got repeated standing ovations from his standing-room-only audience as he told lawmakers what they wanted to hear.
Unfortunately, it was not what they needed to hear.
He spoke of shared values, gratitude for all America has done for Israel in its first 75 years, Harry Truman’s heroic role in recognizing the new state, and American efforts to broker peace, from Camp David to the Abraham Accords.
He spoke of hopes for peace, but made no mention of a two-state solution, something the United States strongly supports but which is losing favor in Israel, which the current government stridently opposes.
Hopeful for the future of Israel
Herzog, instead, painted a picture of the Israel we want to see, the one that epitomizes democracy, protects and defends minorities, human rights, civil liberties, LGBTQ (well, maybe not for the Republicans in his audience), and an independent judiciary. Especially an independent judiciary, these days.
He spoke of hope – the title of his country’s national anthem, “Hatikvah” – and a vibrant democratic Israel, not the emerging autocracy that is closer to reality.
He said: “The shift in generations does not reflect changing values.” But it does. As never before, Israel’s real friends, particularly in the Jewish community, are questioning the path his country is on, moving rapidly away from American-style liberal democracy and toward the growing autocracy of Poland and Hungary.
It was a 75th birthday celebration and it seemed more appropriate to invite the nation’s president, an advocate of democracy, to celebrate the anniversary than the man leading Israel in the other direction.
Herzog paid scant attention to the “heated and painful debate” that is tearing his country apart.
One of his biggest ovations came in response to declaring his country is “safeguarded by its strong Supreme Court and independent judiciary.” Pity no one told his government that.
THE MOST extreme government in Israel’s history, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is in the midst of destroying the independent judiciary, and its checks and balances, in the false name of “reform.”
The judicial overhaul was proceeding at full speed back in Jerusalem just as Herzog was in Washington glossing it over. This crisis could prove to be a greater threat to Israel’s future than Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
To be sure, Herzog is a figurehead president with moral – not political – authority; he has strongly criticized the judicial overhaul and sought to find a compromise, but the extremists pulling the strings in Netanyahu’s government are not interested.
Nor are they listening to the hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens who have been mounting protests for months against the judicial coup, only to be dismissed by some government ministers as “terrorists.”
Those protests are the greatest demonstration of democracy, not what is going on in Knesset, and they have the backing of many military, security, and diplomatic figures.
Hadar Susskind, president of Americans for Peace Now, has described Netanyahu’s government as a collection of “felons, fascists, and fundamentalists.” Two of his leading ministers have long histories of inciting hatred against Israel’s Arab citizens and supporting terrorist groups.
Herzog discussed the judicial reform with President Joe Biden when they met in the Oval Office – currently off limits to Bibi. Biden had earlier phoned Netanyahu to reiterate his concerns about the overhaul.
“Don’t pass anything without a broad consensus,” Biden said, according to columnist Tom Friedman. “You are going to break something in Israel’s democracy and with your relationship with America’s democracy, and you may never be able to get it back.”
Herzog’s speech was almost overshadowed by a pair of stunts by a squad of progressive Democrats and the House Republican leadership. Several of Israel’s most strident leftist critics announced they were boycotting the speech to protest Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. When the leader of the House progressive caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, called Israel a racist state, Republicans couldn’t resist the opportunity to press their “We love Israel more” campaign.
In the present atmosphere, Republicans don’t share the Democrats’ angst over the extremism of the current Israeli coalition on issues including judicial overhaul, settlements, Palestinian rights, and civil liberties.
Jayapal’s slur was met with a firestorm of criticism from dozens of her fellow Democrats. She lamely tried to walk it back, saying she really meant the Netanyahu government is racist, not all of Israel. In truth, the 2022 US State Department human rights report found “significant” issues regarding Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
Interestingly, Republicans responded rapidly when they felt a Democrat had, in their view, unfairly criticized the Jewish state, but they’ve been strangely silent when their own, including Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Representatives Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene and, of course, Donald Trump, trafficked in antisemitic tropes.
Herzog clearly had Jayapal and the squad of boycotters in mind when he noted that “Arab parties serve in the Knesset; women are at the highest levels of the military, and the country remains an oasis for LGBTQ+ people in a region hostile toward the community.” He added, “I respect criticism, especially from friends,” but “criticism of Israel must not cross the line into negation of the State of Israel’s right to exist.”
Republicans quickly pushed a feel-good resolution declaring Israel is neither a racist nor an apartheid state. Jayapal was one of the 412 who voted for it; only nine opposed.
CRITICIZING ISRAEL is not antisemitic as much as some would have us believe. Harsh critics of the government and its policies, especially the current coalition, include half of the Israeli population, much of the nation’s defense, intelligence, and diplomatic establishment, and quite likely a majority of American Jewry. The line, as Herzog said, stops when it goes to Israel’s right to exist.
An interesting contrast to the Republicans’ “gotcha” resolution trying to embarrass progressives was demonstrated by a bipartisan initiative in the Senate the same week. Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced legislation to name a special envoy to promote Israel’s normalization with the Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration already appointed former US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, as its “senior adviser for regional integration.”
It was a week of mixed signals from Washington – Biden called on Netanyahu to delay any judicial overhaul until he has a “broad consensus.” The Senate said we want to help Israel make peace with the Arab world. House Republicans declared they love Israel more than the Democrats with one of their trademark gotcha resolutions. And Herzog celebrated his country’s birthday by painting a surrealist picture of a Jewish state that is far different from the one at home under the leadership of a prime minister currently unwelcome at the White House.
The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant, lobbyist, and former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.