President Isaac Herzog of Israel used an address to Congress on Wednesday to try to ease fresh tensions between his country and the United States, calling on American lawmakers to continue investing in the “irreplaceable” relationship even as he acknowledged problems at home that have strained. that connection

Mr Herzog kept his words strictly neutral as he spoke of the strength of the security partnership between the US and Israel, slammed Iran’s nuclear ambitions and thanked the US for shepherding through the Abraham Accords, which he called a “game changer” for it . peace in the Middle East. And he drew applause from both Republicans and Democrats as he praised the vitality of Israeli democracy and recalled the 75-year alliance with the United States.

“We are proud to be America’s closest partner and friend,” Mr. Herzog told lawmakers. “When America is strong, Israel is stronger. And when Israel is strong, America is safer.”

The speech was an effort to consolidate bipartisan support for Israel at a time when a growing number of Democrats have questioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s embrace of right-wing policies they see as undemocratic, and a stalwart left openly accuses the country of imposing apartheid. policies against Palestinians. It also seemed aimed at reassuring Israelis, who have taken to the streets by the thousands to protest Mr Netanyahu’s policies, that the country still values ​​its democratic, pluralistic heritage.

Israel “is proud of its vibrant democracy, its protection of minorities, human rights and civil liberties, as defined by its parliament, the Knesset, and protected by its strong Supreme Court and independent judiciary,” Mr. Herzog said. He later added that the debates upsetting the Israeli population were “the clearest tribute to the strength of Israel’s democracy.”

The reception for Mr. Herzog in the packed House chamber was solidly supportive, with frequent standing ovations from the assembled lawmakers, including when he blasted the Palestinians for destroying the prospects for peace by supporting terror attacks against Israel.

“Israel cannot and will not tolerate terror, and we know that in this we join the United States of America,” Mr. Herzog said.

But the camaraderie inside the House chamber on Wednesday masked a tense debate over Israel’s policies raging just outside its doors, where a group of left-leaning House Democrats who boycotted the speech accused Israeli leaders of supporting racist policies against Palestinians, which caused you system of apartheid.

On the eve of the speech, 10 left-wing House Democrats refused to vote for a widely supported resolution declaring that Israel is neither a racist nor an apartheid state, along with statements of strong support for Israel and a denunciation of anti-Semitism and xenophobia in all its forms. . Republicans wrote the resolution after Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat and leading progressive, told a liberal audience over the weekend that Israel “is a racist state.”

Although Ms. Jayapal later retracted the comments — and voted for the resolution — the episode sparked a bitter row in Congress, as Republicans accused Democrats of condoning anti-Semitism and Democrats accused Republicans of trying to make Israel a partisan issue by driving action. a wedge between their members.

Mr. Herzog acknowledged the tensions only at a glance in his speech.

“I respect criticism, especially from friends, although you don’t always have to accept it,” Mr. Herzog said. “But criticism of Israel must not cross the line into denying the right of the state of Israel to exist.” He said this was “not legitimate diplomacy, it’s anti-Semitism” – a line met in the room with thunderous applause.

None of the lawmakers criticizing Israel’s policies because of apartheid this week questioned Israel’s right to exist. Instead, they cited the findings of various human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and a United Nations report, which said that Israel’s unequal treatment of Jews and Palestinians under the law, as well as its pursuit of settlement construction in the West. Bank in violation of international law, amounts to apartheid.

“The facts are clear, and the international consensus is resounding – Israel is an apartheid state,” said in a joint statement representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Cori Bush of Missouri, two of the Democrats who boycotted Mr. Herzog’s speech. They said it was “shameful to ignore – and even normalize – this racist and oppressive system of apartheid.”

Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Bush were joined by Democratic Representatives Jamaal Bowman and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both of New York; André Carson of Indiana; Summer Lee of Pennsylvania; Ilhan Omar of Minnesota; Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts; and Delia Ramirez of Illinois, in voting against the resolution. Representative Betty McCollum, Democrat of Minnesota, voted “absent,” declining to register a position.

Although Ms. Jayapal voted in favor of the resolution, she joined several of those members in skipping Mr. Herzog’s speech on Wednesday, as did Representative Nydia M. Velázquez, Democrat of New York, who said the current Israeli government ” undermines” the right to self-determination for all people and diminishes the likelihood of a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.

As a result, there was no hint of disagreement in the room when Mr. Herzog declared that the United States and Israel “have always stood for the same values.”

“Our two nations are both diverse, life-affirming societies that stand for freedom, equality and liberty,” Mr Herzog said. “Both peoples seek to mend the rifts in our world.”

Lawmakers also showed their approval and sympathy when Mr. Herzog paid tribute to Israeli citizens who disagree with the government’s policies, particularly proposals that seek to weaken the national court system and centralize power.

Several Democratic lawmakers, as well as President Biden, have expressed concerns in recent months about Mr. Netanyahu’s acceptance of the measures, and Mr. Herzog has previously warned that the backlash could lead the country into civil war. On Wednesday, he appealed to lawmakers — and Israelis — to see that debate play out in the streets as democracy in action.

“Our democracy is also reflected in the demonstrators on the streets all over the country, to emphatically raise their voices and fervently show their point of view,” he said. “While we work through painful issues, just like you, I know our democracy is strong and resilient.”

Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, announced late Wednesday that the country would allow American citizens of Palestinian origin to visit starting Thursday. The move will allow them to pass through Israel on their way to and from the occupied territories. Currently, Palestinian Americans visiting the West Bank and Gaza must make a longer and more arduous journey through Jordan or Egypt.

If the plan is implemented to the satisfaction of US officials, the US government is expected to waive visa requirements for Israeli citizens in a reciprocal gesture. Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the State Department, told reporters on Wednesday that Israel’s changes “will ensure equal treatment for all American citizen travelers without regard to national origin, religion or ethnicity,” and that the United States will make a decision on admitting Israel to its visa waiver program until September 30th.

On Capitol Hill, Mr. Herzog received a warm welcome from members of both parties, who jointly invited him to address Congress and met with him on Wednesday before his speech. He was the ninth Israeli leader to address Congress, and the first to do so since 2015, when Mr. Netanyahu delivered an address invited by Republicans over President Obama’s objections and used it to slam the nuclear deal his administration was trying to negotiate. Iran. Only one other Israeli president – Mr. Herzog’s father, Chaim Herzog – has addressed Congress, in 1987.

Mr. Herzog took a noticeably more conciliatory tone than Mr. Netanyahu, even when it came to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“Allowing Iran to become a nuclear threshold state – whether by omission or diplomatic commission – is unacceptable,” he said, adding that “the world cannot remain indifferent to the Iranian regime’s call to wipe Israel off the map.”

Mr. Herzog made no specific mention of the informal deal the Biden administration has been trying to strike with Tehran to curb its nuclear program, through which it has built a supplier of highly enriched uranium but has not yet attempted to build a bomb.

In fact, the only moment of the speech that seemed to inspire any division at all was when Mr. Herzog mentioned that Tel Aviv hosts “one of the largest and most impressive LGBTQ Pride Parades in the world,” a line that inspired cheers from Democrats, but silence from most Republicans. It was a reminder that the two parties are at war over a GOP drive to impose conservative social policies through the government.

Michael Crowley contributed reports from Washington and Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem.

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