A handful of Democratic lawmakers said they would stay 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.
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 by anti-government protesters in Israel.
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 neighbors in recent years, and a shared commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the official said.
“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.
Biden had held off extending the invitation out of concern over Jewish settlements and a planned overhaul that critics say would strip Israel’s highest court of much of its power and that has driven protests in Israel for months, including on Tuesday.
In Congress, 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 Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American House member, said on Twitter she would be boycotting Herzog’s address. “I urged all Members of Congress who stand for human rights for all to join me,” she said, with a picture of herself holding a “Boycott Apartheid” sign on the Capitol steps.
Representative Jamaal Bowman said he too would be a no-show in a statement citing “concern that there is no sense of urgency about ensuring the safety and security of all Israelis and Palestinians in the region and finally achieving a two-state solution.”
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also did not plan to attend. An aide said she shared many of her colleagues’ concerns.
It is not unusual for members of Congress to miss foreign leaders’ addresses. 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.
Republican House of Representatives leaders criticized the Democrats’ stance. They scheduled a vote on a resolution expressing the support of Congress for the state of Israel.
Representative Primila Jayapal, who leads a large group of progressives in Congress, on Sunday apologized for calling Israel a racist state.
Democratic House leaders had pushed back against her initial declaration.
On Friday, noting the expansion of 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.”