Herzog’s bland speech shows Israel still has great power in DC

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  July 20, 2023

There is a real sea change in popular views of Israel, especially among Democrats and left-leaning Americans. But it’s not yet being seen in Washington, DC.

The much-anticipated speech by Israeli President Isaac Herzog to a joint session of Congress came and went with a lot of pomp and circumstance, about a dozen applause breaks, and little substance. Given Herzog’s long history as a milquetoast, risk-averse politician, that blandness couldn’t have been a surprise. But it whitewashed the extreme crisis Israel is facing internally while simultaneously adding another layer of shade over Israel’s brutal repression of the Palestinians.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the event was who was not there. Despite Herzog being part of the so-called “moderate” Israeli sector, a handful of Democrats stuck to their principles and refused to fete the president of a state whose racist policies and actions have been meticulously and extensively documented and has been labeled an apartheid state, not only by the victims of that policy—the Palestinian people—but also by the global human rights community, the United Nations, and Israel’s most prominent human rights organizations

Handful of boycotters

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Cori Bush (D-MO) boycotted Herzog’s speech. Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American in Congress, and Bush issued a joint statement explaining their reasons for boycotting Herzog. 

They stated,

“Bipartisanship must not be used to justify apartheid. It’s important to remember that South Africa’s apartheid government also had bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress. It is shameful to deliberately ignore—and even normalize—this racist and oppressive system of apartheid by welcoming President Herzog or any member of the Israeli government to address Congress. In solidarity with the Palestinian people and all those who have been harmed by the Israeli apartheid government and their policies, we will be boycotting President Herzog’s joint address to Congress… Racism and oppression must not be tolerated in America or anywhere else in the world. We urge all Members of Congress who stand for human rights for all to join us in boycotting apartheid.”

But to hear Herzog tell it, Israel has just a few problems. “Although we are working through sore issues, just like you,” he told the assembled Congress, “I know our democracy is strong and resilient. Israel has democracy in its DNA.” 

Indeed, echoing the words of U.S. President Joe Biden, Herzog bizarrely claimed that the protests currently seen in Israel show a vibrant democracy at work. “Our democracy is also reflected in protesters taking to the streets all across the country, to emphatically raise their voices and fervently demonstrate their point of view.” How the mere existence of protests, which are seen frequently in authoritarian states, demonstrates the existence of a “vibrant democracy” is unclear.

Herzog offered the usual platitudes and common U.S.-Israeli lines, including the “unbreakable bond” between the two countries, a dose of fearmongering around Iran (which drew enthusiastic applause from most of the assembled Democrats as well as the Republicans), and, of course, the “shared values” cliché. Given the United States’ history of slavery, genocide, segregation, and ongoing racism, as well as the massive, historically unprecedented destruction it has wreaked around the globe, perhaps Herzog has a point here. 

Herzog acknowledged the Congress members who were boycotting his speech, in a most hubristic and rude manner. He said, “I respect criticism, especially from friends, although one does not always have to accept it. But criticism of Israel must not cross the line into negation of the State of Israel’s right to exist. Questioning the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, is not legitimate diplomacy, it is antisemitism.”

This was an implicit accusation that those who were boycotting his talk, including Jewish Senator Sanders, were antisemitic. One can always do this when you make up rights, such as the “right” of a state to exist. There is no such right, nor is there a right for every nation to have a state of its own. Many nations—the Roma, Kurds, Sahrawi, Hawaiians, Catalans, Basque, Tamils, among many others—don’t have a state of their own. There is, however, a Jewish state, but not a Palestinian one. Again, there is no guarantee that a nation gets a state. 

But Israel exists, and not one of the boycotters has called for its dissolution. They have called for Palestinian rights. If Herzog and other Israelis believe that correctly naming Israel’s actions, policies, and laws as discriminatory, racist, or apartheid is tantamount to calling for Israel’s dissolution, perhaps they should consider discontinuing those racist, apartheid practices. As he casually cheapens the real struggle against actual antisemitism, Herzog might want to pay attention to a Brookings Institute poll that came out the day before his address to Congress that showed that fully 51% of Americans believe that spurious accusations of antisemitism are “frequently” or “sometimes” used to delegitimize political opponents. 49% say it is “frequently” or “sometimes” used to delegitimize critics of Israel. Only 11% thought it was not used so. People see what’s happening. 

Canard of the eternally violent Palestinians

But Herzog, whose public persona is much more comparable to the hawkish but liberal Democratic image of Joe Biden than to the more overtly racist Republicans who find more commonality with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was also there to try to save what Tom Friedman called a crucial “shared fiction” of Israel ever ending their domination of the Palestinian people. 

To that end, he told Congress, “My deep yearning, Mr. Speaker, is for Israel to one day make peace with our Palestinian neighbors.” But he didn’t even mention a Palestinian state, much less admit any Israeli culpability for the escalating violence. 

Instead, Herzog promoted the typical anti-Palestinian Islamophobic imagery of the fanatically violent and hateful Arab. “Palestinian terror against Israel or Israelis undermines any possibility for a future of peace between our peoples. Israelis are targeted while waiting for busses, while taking a stroll on the promenade, while spending time with their family. At the same time, successful terror attacks are celebrated, terrorists are glorified, and their families are financially rewarded for every Israeli they attack. This is inconceivable. It is a moral disgrace.”

Herzog has no explanation for how it is that, this year alone at least 153 Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers (through June 24) while these allegedly bloodthirsty Palestinians have killed 23 Israelis. Every life is precious, and all civilian lives lost are tragedies, but Herzog would have us believe that Israelis never harm anyone outside of those about to kill them. It is obviously untrue. And when we talk about injuries, more Palestinians have been injured by Israelis (6,336) this year alone than Israelis have been by Palestinians since the beginning of 2008 (6,246). 

Herzog dove deeper, though, claiming it was only Palestinian violence that was responsible for the derailment of the futile “peace process,” portraying Israel—whose prime minister for almost all of the past fifteen years has repeatedly vowed to destroy the very idea of a Palestinian state—as constantly striving for “peace” and good relations with the Palestinians. He repeated the falsehood that the Palestinian Authority’s welfare system for the families of Palestinian prisoners and those killed fighting Israel (some of whom have certainly attacked or even killed Israeli non-combatants) is actually a reward program for those who kill Israelis. He never, of course, mentioned that those same Palestinians are deprived of all their rights, without exception, by Israel. 

Assuaging liberal Zionists

“Herzog isn’t giving a speech, he’s singing a lullaby for liberal Zionists,” tweeted Matt Duss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Go back to sleep, everything is fine.”

He’s right, that’s exactly what Herzog was doing. His entire trip to Washington had one purpose—to put out the fire that Netanyahu and his far-right henchmen like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich had set among liberal supporters of Israel in Washington and in the American Jewish community. 

That fire was stoked in recent days. First, it was enflamed by Netanyahu, who fully recognized the weakness of the Biden administration. Netanyahu has been down this road before, and when you make it clear there will be no consequences for an action, he will always take that action. So, he pushed forward with the first, highly impactful bill in the Knesset to gut Israel’s judiciary, the very body Herzog touted to Congress as “safeguarding” Israeli “democracy. 

Biden asked Netanyahu to slow it down, and Netanyahu refused, even in the wake of ongoing, massive protests in Israel. And after Netanyahu, who is well aware of Biden’s desire that Israel stop settlement expansion, announced a huge new round of 13,000 new settlement units in the West Bank, Biden responded with a “warm and long” phone call.  Even there, Netanyahu then lied about the call. Axios’ Barak Ravid reported, “The feeling at the White House is that the Israeli Prime Minister and his team intentionally misrepresented the content of the call between Biden & Netanyahu in order to create an impression that the President didn’t object to the legislation to weaken Israel’s supreme court. A senior U.S. official told me: ‘We wanted to make clear that the fact Biden spoke with Bibi about a possible meeting doesn’t mean we don’t care about the judicial overhaul. They should make no mistake – Biden has strong feelings about this & made it clear in a 1000 ways’” 

Perhaps so, but those ways clearly did not include anything that made Netanyahu think twice about moving ahead with his plans. 

While Biden was doing an excellent impression of a doormat, Rep. Pramila Jayapal was being savaged for stating the obvious truth that Israel was a racist state. Jayapal quickly walked back the remark after both Republicans and Democrats jumped all over her, although she did still say the current Israeli government was racist. The House followed with a bill making a congressional statement that Israel was not a racist or apartheid state. Jayapal was not among the nine House members who voted against the bill. 

All of this happened before Herzog spoke. The obscene lovefest for the president of a racist, apartheid state whose supporters are patrolling every statement made about it likely changed very little in the hearts and minds of Americans. It helped remind everyone that Congress is even more out of touch with their constituents on this issue than they are on most others. And those constituents are unlikely to have changed their views because of Herzog’s bland speech.

But all of these events together should serve as a strong reminder. There is a real sea change in popular views of Israel, especially among Democrats and left-leaning Americans. But it’s not translating into policy. The draconian tactics that Herzog subtly reinforced—the spurious accusations of antisemitism, legislating free speech to oppose boycotts or, eventually, criticism of Israel, and, of course, campaign financing—are now the only tools Israel’s advocates have. They are harsh tools, and they hurt people. But unless we stand up to them, the disconnect between Americans and their government on Israel and Palestine is only going to grow. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics