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Israel Herzog to face tensions on Washington visit

July 18, 2023 at 4:35 pm

Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu (L) receives the mandate to form the government after meeting with President Isaac Herzog (R) in Jerusalem on November 13, 2022. [GPO – Anadolu Agency]

A handful of Democratic lawmakers are weighing staying away when Israeli President, Isaac Herzog, addresses Congress this week, citing issues that include the human rights record of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, Reuters reports.

Herzog, who as head of state plays a largely ceremonial role, begins his two-day Washington visit on Tuesday when he meets US President, Joe Biden, before addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday.

Ties between the two countries are strained over Israeli settlement expansion on the Occupied West Bank as well as a judicial overhaul pursued by Netanyahu’s right-wing government and assailed for months by Israeli protesters.

Herzog will also meet Vice President, Kamala Harris, Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, a senior administration official said.

Biden and Herzog will discuss deepening Israel’s regional integration, buoyed by several accords with its Arab neighbours in recent years, and a shared commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the official said.

READ: Biden called upon to downgrade relations with Israel

“They will also discuss the urgent need to preserve the path for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the official said. Biden and Herzog last met at the White House in October. Netanyahu returned to power in December.

On Monday, Biden invited Netanyahu to the United States for an official visit later this year.

Biden had held off extending the invitation out of concern over Jewish illegal settlements and a planned overhaul that critics say would strip Israel’s highest court of much of its power and prompted anti-government protests in Israel for months.

Speech boycotts 

In Congress, US Representative, Ilhan Omar, said on Twitter “there is no way in hell” she would be at Wednesday’s speech.

“Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address comes on behalf 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,” Omar said.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also said she did not plan to attend the speech. An aide said she shared many of her colleagues’ concerns.

It is not unusual for members of Congress to miss foreign leaders’ addresses to joint meetings of Congress. Several skipped Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s speech to Congress in June, citing issues, including rights concerns.

More than 50 Democrats stayed away from a 2015 speech to Congress by Netanyahu that was seen as an embrace of congressional Republicans and snub of then-Democratic President, Barack Obama’s Iran policy. Biden, who was Vice President and thus President of the Senate, also did not attend.

Representative Primila Jayapal, who leads a large group of progressives in Congress, on Saturday apologised for calling Israel a racist state.

Democratic House leaders had pushed back against her initial declaration.

On Friday, noting the expansion of illegal settlements, violence in the West Bank and Netanyahu’s “collaboration with extreme right” elements, Jayapal told reporters of Herzog’s address: “I think this is not a good time for that to happen.”

READ: US President Biden invites Israel Prime Minister to Washington