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Israeli president's speech was applauded by some in Congress, boycotted by others

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Israeli President Isaac Herzog emphasized the unique partnership Israel shares with the United States, speaking to a joint meeting of Congress today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG: Our bond may be challenged at times, but it is absolutely unbreakable.

FLORIDO: His speech comes amid political tensions within the House of Representatives as a group of progressive lawmakers boycotted the speech, citing concerns for Palestinian rights. NPR congressional reporter Barbara Sprunt brings us this report.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Herzog began his speech by acknowledging his own family history.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HERZOG: Standing here today, representing the Jewish democratic state of Israel in its 75th year at the very podium from which my late father, President Chaim Herzog, spoke, is in the honor of a lifetime.

SPRUNT: During his 40-minute speech, which got 29 bipartisan standing ovations, Herzog praised the 2020 Abraham Accords, a deal brokered by the Trump administration to normalize relations between Israel and several Arab countries. And he warned against the Iranian nuclear program.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HERZOG: Allowing Iran to become a nuclear threshold state, whether by omission or by diplomatic commission, is unacceptable.

SPRUNT: Herzog's visit comes weeks after Israeli forces carried out one of their most intensive operations in the occupied West Bank in two decades. Senior members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government have been pushing for increased construction in West Bank settlements to cement Israel's control over land Palestinians seek for an independent state. Netanyahu leads the most right-wing coalition in Israel's history. For months, tens of thousands of Israelis have held regular protests to oppose the coalition's plans for weakening the court system. Herzog told lawmakers he's, quote, "well aware of the imperfections of Israeli democracy." He said the unrest is painful, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HERZOG: I have great confidence in Israeli democracy. Although we are working through our issues just like you, I know our democracy is strong and resilient.

SPRUNT: Herzog's address came after tensions in the House over comments from Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who chairs the progressive caucus. She sparked bipartisan outrage after she responded to a group of pro-Palestinian protesters who interrupted a recent panel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRAMILA JAYAPAL: We have been fighting to make it clear that Israel is a racist state - that the Palestinian people...

(APPLAUSE)

JAYAPAL: ...Deserve self-determination and autonomy.

SPRUNT: She later apologized, saying in a statement that she doesn't think the idea of Israel as a nation is racist, but she believes the government has engaged in racist policies. Illinois Congressman Brad Schneider was one of over 40 Democrats to sign a statement expressing concern over Jayapal's comments.

BRAD SCHNEIDER: I appreciate that she has since retracted the words and issued an apology. Israel is not a racist state. It's not a perfect state. And at the moment, there's a government that has members of the government who express - certainly express racist views, but that is not the country.

SPRUNT: Following Jayapal's remarks, House Republicans put forth a resolution reaffirming support for Israel, something Jayapal called a political ploy to divide Democrats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAYAPAL: But I am not going to be bullied by their political games. And I'm not going to let them, you know, try to continue this debate, so I voted yes on the resolution.

SPRUNT: The resolution passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Just nine progressive Democrats voted against it. Herzog himself nodded to the recent controversy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HERZOG: Criticism of Israel must not cross the line into negation of the state of Israel's right to exist.

(APPLAUSE)

SPRUNT: While Republican lawmakers were quick to denounce Jayapal's comments as anti-Semitic, they're being criticized by some Democrats for not disinviting democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. from testifying on Capitol Hill tomorrow. Kennedy recently made anti-Semitic comments that falsely suggest COVID-19 may have been, quote, "ethnically targeted to spare Chinese people and Ashkenazi Jews."

Barbara Sprunt, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.