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President Herzog Navigates Polarization in the United States and Israel

By Gabriel Teitelbaum

From Times of Israel: President Isaac Herzog is greeted by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy as he arrives to speak to a joint meeting of US Congress, July 19, 2023, at the Capitol in Washington, as Vice President Kamala Harris look on. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own.

As a foreign dignitary, a speech to a joint session of Congress can be a do-or-die moment. It was for Winston Churchill during his appeal to the United States during World War II. Aside from varying levels of urgency, there is a fundamental object of such addresses: to convince Americans that their efforts and taxes would be well-placed in bolstering ties. This persuasive exercise is no mean feat in light of increased isolationist sentiment in the United States and, as President Herzog experienced for himself, the specter of antisemitism. The foreign policy bubbles in Washington D.C. have, in an anomalous fashion, been subjected to hyperpolarization as well. In his one speech, President Herzog astutely navigated through these obstacles while advocating for a democracy that has numerous enemies, both foreign and domestic.

In 2015, relations between the United States and Israel were possibly at their lowest. There is no better evidence of this than Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress, which was intended to denounce the President Obama-endorsed Iran nuclear deal. After a warming of US-Israel ties that occurred during the years of the Trump regime, this warming has largely continued despite President Biden’s commitment to restoring the East Jerusalem consulate. At the beginning of his speech, President Herzog made it clear to all in attendance that he would not exploit partisanship in the United States, unlike his Prime Minister. Praise was heaped upon both Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Vice President Kamala Harris.

President Herzog was justified in emphasizing the importance of bipartisan support for Israel. Israel itself is not immune to actors that would subvert the U.S.-Israeli relationship for the sake of political opportunism. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s son, Yair, has peddled a baseless conspiracy theory that the United States was funding anti-Netanyahu protests (this is a common defense for the world’s most oppressive regimes such as China). The bitterly fought culture war greeted Herzog as well, with some Republicans refusing to applaud his boast of Tel Aviv’s pride parade. Even then, he demonstrated his understanding that the politicization of ties, in which the United States invests billions in Israel’s national defense, could weaken that security, and damage America geopolitically.

The President of Israel also addressed a “gotcha” question that is often employed by antisemites and anti-Zionists throughout the U.S.: “what does Israel do for us?” Herzog’s response was rooted in geopolitical thought; the threat of Iran extends to the United States, even if Israel is not in the picture. Iran’s imperialistic behavior in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and with Palestinian nationals endanger American influence in the Middle East- as well as relations with allies such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, along with American military personnel and assets. Furthermore, as Herzog mentioned, Iran has been aiding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with cheap yet destructive drones. The greater point is that Iran’s revisionist foreign policy seeks to erode the Liberal International Order. Herzog also tacitly denounced the Iran nuclear deal, but without the explosive partisanship that characterized Prime Minister Netanyahu’s critique, in which he exploited the partisan divergence on the issue of the deal, siding with Republicans over former President Obama. Indeed, an irrational Islamic theocracy, believing that its actions are sanctioned by God, having access to nuclear weapons is a self-apparent threat to global security.

In what may be seen as a surprise to some, President Herzog used some time on the podium to indirectly criticize Israel’s far-right governing coalition. He has expressed his disagreement with the judicial overhaul that Prime Minister Netanyahu is still attempting to pass, presenting his own framework that was rejected by the latter. In the address, he complimented Israel’s independent judiciary twice to the chagrin of the far-right. While the Israeli President oversees a largely ceremonial role, Herzog views recent events in both Israel and the United States as extreme. He alluded to such a viewpoint when he mentioned the “tumultuous shift in balance” which can be observed on a global basis. And extreme shakeups call for responses of equal measure. In this case, the response is a more political President that is willing to join the fray caused by Israel’s political and social divide, something unprecedented for the Israeli Presidency.

The address also highlighted the strange dynamism that characterizes antisemitism. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) visibly applauded the President along with her colleagues. It is only natural to question the fact that, a belligerent antisemite that has accused Jews of starting forest fires with space lasers, applauded the grandson of Israel’s Grand Rabbi. It is also appropriate to question why a few leftists, who often call for multiculturalism and tolerance, boycotted one of the few foreign Jewish leaders to grace Congress. The answers to both are simple yet disturbing in their implications. The global right-wing has been willing to tolerate minorities to tow their narratives and create plausible deniability. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán utilized Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist George Soros as an antisemitic bogeyman (an increasingly prevalent tactic among the far-right) yet enjoys warm ties with Prime Minister Netanyahu. It goes the other way too, with Yair Netanyahu putting his Judaism aside to post cartoons that were sympathetic to Nazism and white supremacy.

The question regarding leftists is inevitably more complex owing to the less unified nature of the left. Narrowing in on specific individuals, Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have succeeded in establishing left-wing antisemitism as mainstream and politically acceptable, as seen in the brazenness in which they boycotted Herzog’s address as well as their re-election after engagement with antisemitic innuendo. Their antisemitism, which holds Israel to a degree of accountability that no state run by a human being can accomplish, is a uniquely pernicious one cloaked purely in anti-Zionism. While remarking on criticism of Israel, Herzog made it clear that negating Israel’s right to exist is an antisemitic belief. His interaction with this fringe of the Democratic Party is not as politically risky as it might initially appear, with only nine House members approving of leftist antisemitism in a recent vote.

Overall, President Herzog’s speech offered an intriguing window into the history of U.S.-Israel ties, his personal history, which is deeply enmeshed with Israel itself, the threats and opportunities both democracies face, and how a leader plays that two-level game of domestic and foreign politics. However, the speech left many questions that should occupy the minds of Israel observers unanswered. Is Herzog’s optimism regarding Israeli democracy justified, or naïve? Will Israel commit to aiding the United States in containing Russo-Chinese influence in the Middle East? Ultimately, the Israeli president is not the one in the driver’s seat- that driver would be Prime Minister Netanyahu and his coalition, albeit driving down a precarious and unpredictable path. Even then, Herzog should utilize his position to galvanize support for democracy at home, and Israel abroad.

Gabriel "Gabe" Teitelbaum is a junior at American University who studies in the School of International Service with a focus on National Security. Outside of his academic work, Gabe has worked for Representative Andy Kim's Congressional Office in D.C. and is Secretary of Students Supporting Ukraine, a club at AU. He has also written for Penn Political Review. In his free time, Gabe enjoys reading about military history, among other subjects. He hopes to fight for democracy in word and deed.

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