Before Itzchak Herzog could begin his speech in front of the two chambers of Congress in the Capitol in Washington, the members of Congress applauded for several minutes. It was “the honor of my life” to speak here, the Israeli President said on Wednesday. More than three decades ago, an Israeli President stood on this spot to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Israel’s founding – his father, Chaim Herzog. Itzchak Herzog said his “soul is overflowing with pride and joy”. The partnership between Israel and the United States has weathered challenges and disagreements because it is not based on uniformity but on “the ultimate currency of trust.”
North American political correspondent based in Washington.
The address to the chambers of Congress was a bipartisan show of support for Israel as one of the key strategic allies in the Middle East. In a meeting with President Joe Biden the day before, Biden had already emphasized how “iron” and irrefutable America’s commitment to Israel is. But the relationship between the two countries is strained these days because of the Israeli government’s controversial judicial reform. Prior to departure, Herzog noted that while he was in the United States, “my heart and thoughts are with what is happening in Israel.”
In the past few months, the 62-year-old President has tried in vain to mediate between supporters and opponents of the controversial judicial reform. The American government had earlier made its irritation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ultra-right and ultra-Orthodox coalition partners clearer and clearer. In an interview with CNN in early July, Biden spoke of one of the “most extreme” Israeli ministers he had seen in five decades of politics.
“Stormy Shift of Balance”
In his speech on Wednesday, Herzog emphasized the common interests of the two countries: America is irreplaceable for Israel and vice versa. “All of us,” Herzog said, experienced a “stormy shift in balance” in many areas. But these challenges offer the opportunity to seek common solutions. The Israeli President also repeatedly mentioned the value of the independence of the judiciary in his country. While Herzog was en route to Washington, there was another day of mass protests in Israel. Netanyahu’s coalition government is pushing ahead with its plans. The Knesset is expected to vote on Monday on legislation that would largely limit the Supreme Court’s review of government decisions.
The topic before Herzog’s visit to Washington was therefore Biden’s surprise invitation to Netanyahu in the USA, which was only announced last Sunday. Herzog was visiting Biden for the second time in nine months, but Netanyahu has been waiting for an official invitation to the White House since taking office at the end of December. So far, it has repeatedly been said that there are no plans to invite the close ally’s head of government in the near future. It is not yet clear where and under what circumstances the prime minister will be received.
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Before Herzog’s visit, there had been dissenting statements within the Democrats, despite the generally unified position of Congress on Israel. Over the weekend, Democrat MP Pramila Jayapal said Israel was a “racist state” for its treatment of the Palestinians — a comment she withdrew after cross-party criticism. Ten progressive-wing Democratic MPs also on Tuesday did not support a resolution emphasizing partnership with Israel. Herzog said he was not blind to criticism among friends. But the criticism should “not go so far as to negate the State of Israel’s right to exist.” That once again earned him loud applause. Questioning the right of the Jewish people to self-determination “is not legitimate diplomacy, but anti-Semitism”.
In terms of security policy, Herzog emphasized Iran and its nuclear program in the speech: This is “perhaps the greatest challenge” for both countries at the moment. There should be no doubt that “Iran does not seek to obtain nuclear energy for peaceful purposes”. It is all the more important to act together: if America is strong, then Israel will be stronger. “And when Israel is strong, the United States is safer.”
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