Washington, DC – Israeli President Isaac Herzog is set to arrive in the United States, where he will meet with President Joe Biden and address a joint session of Congress as the US and Israel deepen ties despite concerns over Palestinians’ human rights.
Herzog, who will address US lawmakers on Wednesday, serves a largely ceremonial role in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the head of the executive branch. And while Netanyahu has been a controversial figure – even amongst mainstream US Democrats – Herzog is often portrayed as a non-partisan statesman.
But rights advocates say Herzog’s visit will be a boost to the unquestionable US support for Israel at a time when many of them are asking Biden to pressure Netanyahu’s government to end abuses against Palestinians.
Addressing a joint session of Congress is a rare opportunity granted only to the country’s closest allies. Herzog is also expected to receive a warm welcome at the White House on Tuesday, even as his trip comes amid intensifying violence against Palestinians.
Hassan El-Tayyab, legislative director for Middle East policy at the advocacy group Friends Committee on National Legislation, said Netanyahu and Herzog represent the same Israeli government.
“We need accountability for so many human rights violations against Palestinians, which are only escalating,” El-Tayyab told Al Jazeera.
“Members of Congress should use this trip to push for changes in these policies around annexation, child detention, home demolition, settler violence, the treatment of journalists, including Shireen Abu Akleh – and the list goes on.”
Abu Akleh, an Al Jazeera correspondent, was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper in May 2022 while reporting on an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin. There was no fighting near her and she was wearing a helmet and flak jacket clearly identifying her as a journalist when she was killed.
‘No way in hell’
A few progressive US lawmakers, including Ilhan Omar, Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush, have confirmed that they will boycott Herzog’s speech to Congress. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will also skip the address, Jewish Insider has reported.
Last week, Omar outlined her decision in a series of tweets, referencing when Israel banned her along with fellow Muslim-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib from entering the country in 2019.
“There is no way in hell I am attending the joint session address from a President whose country has banned me and denied [Tlaib] the ability to see her grandma,” said Omar, who was kicked off the House Foreign Affairs Committee by the Republican majority earlier this year over past criticism of Israel.
The congresswoman noted that the visit comes amid the rise of far-right figures in the Israeli government and “increasing violations of international law and human rights”.
Earlier this month, Israeli forces attacked the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, killing at least 12 Palestinians.
“The United States can and should use its diplomatic tools to engage with the Israeli government, but giving the current government the honor of a joint televised address sends the absolute wrong signal at the wrong time,” Omar wrote.
There is no way in hell I am attending the joint session address from a President whose country has banned me and denied @RashidaTlaib the ability to see her grandma. A thread👇🏽
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) July 13, 2023
While he mostly serves above domestic politics as president of Israel, Herzog is often a spokesperson for the state and its policies. For example, after the US ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s decided in 2021 to stop operations in illegal Israeli settlements in compliance with international law, Herzog described the move as a “new kind of terrorism”.
Despite being accused of committing the crime of apartheid by leading human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Israel receives at least $3.8bn in US aid annually.
“Progressive members of Congress are absolutely right to skip President Herzog’s speech,” said Beth Miller, political director of Jewish Voice for Peace Action, an advocacy group that supports Palestinian rights.
“Herzog is the president of a country that is brutally oppressing millions of Palestinians through illegal military occupation and apartheid. Any member of Congress who believes in human rights should not attend or support his speech.”
She added that skipping Herzog’s address is not about individual politicians, but rather about sending a message rejecting Israel’s “racist” policies against Palestinians.
“As Israel accelerates the construction of illegal settlements on stolen Palestinian land, and intensifies violence toward Palestinians, Herzog is coming to Congress with the goal of whitewashing these human rights violations and deepening ties between Israel and the US,” Miller told Al Jazeera.
Tensions around Israel in Congress – especially amongst Democrats – surfaced days before Herzog’s visit with Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, calling the country a “racist state” on Saturday.
“I want you to know that we have been fighting to make it clear that Israel is a racist state, that the Palestinian people deserve self-determination and autonomy, that the dream of a two-state solution is slipping away from us, that it does not even feel possible,” Jayapal told protesters chanting “free Palestine” during the progressive Netroots Nation conference in Chicago.
The congresswoman spoke of an “organised opposition” pushing to prevent lawmakers from taking positions in favour of Palestinian rights.
Almost immediately after footage of her remarks became public, Jayapal faced a firestorm of criticism from Israel’s supporters, including some of her own Democratic colleagues.
House Democratic leaders released a joint statement proclaiming that “Israel is not a racist state” but a country that ensures equality for all of its citizens. They also said they are looking forward to Herzog’s visit.
But critics note that the country’s basic law states that “the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is exclusive to the Jewish People”. Moreover, the Israeli government has de facto control over millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories who do not have basic civil rights.
On Sunday, Jayapal retracted her statement and apologised amid the backlash.
“Words do matter and so it is important that I clarify my statement. I do not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist,” Jayapal said in a statement.
“I do, however, believe that Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government has engaged in discriminatory and outright racist policies and that there are extreme racists driving that policy within the leadership of the current government.”
The episode showed the strong support that Israel still enjoys in Congress, but it also highlighted some of the cracks that are starting to show in it – with progressives increasingly questioning Washington’s position on the conflict.
Calls for ‘meaningful action’
Last week, the youth-led Jewish progressive group IfNotNow called on US lawmakers to take a stance on Palestinian rights during Herzog’s visit.
“As Israel flagrantly violates international law and US policy, now is not the time to roll out the red carpet for its president,” Eva Borgwardt, the group’s political director, said in a statement.
“For lawmakers attending the speech, we expect to hear how they intend to leverage the US-Israel relationship to address the ongoing violations and ensure meaningful accountability.”
However, the White House said it will affirm its “ironclad” support for Israel during Herzog’s visit.
The Biden administration has voiced opposition to Israel’s settlement expansion policies and condemned settler violence. Biden also openly expressed displeasure with Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul Israel’s judicial system.
But Washington’s backing of Israel remains steady, and the US is pushing to establish formal diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which would boost Netanyahu’s government.
El-Tayyab underscored the discrepancy between the Biden administration’s verbal criticism of Israel and its embrace of the Israeli government, calling for “meaningful action” to hold Israel accountable for rights violations.
“We need to go beyond these statements that the State Department makes periodically about these individual violations to actually fundamentally reforming the US-Israel relationship,” he said.