Israeli President Isaac Herzog arrives to speak to a joint meeting of Congress, Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at the Capitol in Washington, DC.
CNN  — 

Israeli President Isaac Herzog affirmed the US-Israel relationship in an address to a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday, calling America “our greatest partner and friend,” while also acknowledging criticism from some House progressives.

There is widespread support for Israel on both sides of the aisle in Congress and among congressional leadership, but some House progressive Democrats opted to skip the address, citing concerns about human rights. House progressives have been vocal about their opposition to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the US sponsorship of Israel’s Iron Dome defense system.

“I am not oblivious to criticism among friends, including some expressed by respected members of this House,” Herzog said. “I respect criticism, especially from friends, although one does not always have to accept it. But criticism of Israel must not cross the line into negation of the State of Israel’s right to exist. Questioning the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, is not legitimate diplomacy, it is antisemitism.” The remarks prompted a standing ovation with loud cheers and clapping.

Ahead of the address, the House of Representatives voted Tuesday evening to pass a resolution affirming support for Israel with a bipartisan vote of 412 to 9, with nine Democrats voting against it. The vote came after Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, made comments over the weekend about Israel being a “racist” state, which she later sought to walk back.

Some of the prominent progressives who said they would not attend the speech include: Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Cori Bush of Missouri and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Jayapal did not attend the address due to a scheduling conflict, two sources told CNN.

Later, Herzog said, “I am well aware of the imperfections of Israeli democracy, and I am conscious of the questions posed by our greatest of friends.”

He went on to say, “As President of Israel, I am here to tell the American people, and each of you, that I have great confidence in Israeli democracy. Although we are working through… issues, just like you, I know our democracy is strong and resilient. Israel has democracy in its DNA.”

The Israeli president suggested that even with differences, the US-Israel relationship has an unshakeable bond.

“Israel and the United States will inevitably disagree on many matters, but we will always remain family,” he said. “Our bond may be challenged at times, but it is absolutely unbreakable.”

Much of the speech from Herzog focused on the consequential relationship between the US and Israel.

“Today, at this moment in my people’s history, gathering on Capitol Hill to celebrate 75 years of Israeli independence with our greatest partner and friend, the United States of America, my soul is overflowing with pride and joy,” Herzog said – comments that prompted another standing ovation from members of Congress.

Herzog also spoke of diplomacy with Saudi Arabia and warned of the threat posed by Iran.

“Perhaps the greatest challenge Israel and the United States face at this time together is the Iranian nuclear program,” he said. “Let there be no doubt: Iran does not strive to attain nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Iran is building nuclear capabilities, that pose a threat to the stability of the Middle East and beyond.”

Later, he said, “Israel thanks the United States for working towards establishing peaceful relations between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a leading nation in the region and in the Muslim world.”

Democratic leadership has been supportive of Herzog’s visit, with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York extending the invitation last year. “I look forward to welcoming him with open arms,” House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries said at a recent news conference, calling Herzog “a force for good in Israeli society.”

And top House Democrats rebuked the comments from Jayapal. “Israel is not a racist state,” Jeffries, Democratic Whip Katherine Clark, Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar and Vice Chair Ted Lieu said in a statement Sunday that did not mention the progressive leader by name.

Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat, said “Israel is a racist state” on Saturday while addressing pro-Palestine protesters who interrupted a panel discussion at the Netroots Nation conference in Chicago.

Jayapal sought to clarify her remarks in a Sunday afternoon statement, saying that she does “not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist,” while offering an apology “to those who I have hurt with my words.”

Ocasio-Cortez said earlier this week she would not be attending the speech, saying, “There’s currently a crisis of democracy and apartheid, and I think that this is something that has been a consensus among human rights organizations globally from the UN to Amnesty International, and I think this is a conversation that we heed to have as a country.”

Congressional reaction to the address

A number of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle applauded the address, saying Herzog reminded lawmakers of what unites the US and Israel despite some of the disagreements that have roiled the relationship in recent years.

“We may have certain disagreements, but we are still a family. I think that really struck a chord with a lot of members,” Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa said. “It was a wonderful speech, and you can look at the way Democrats and Republicans reacted to certain lines. I think there is just a call for unification and this speech really did that.”

Ernst said “that is their loss,” when asked about a handful of progressives who did not attend the speech.

Sen. Brian Schatz, a progressive Democrat from Hawaii, told CNN that he was impressed by Herzog’s ability to walk a fine line between acknowledging the political realities for the US and Israel while keeping a unifying message front and center.

“It was extraordinarily well crafted, and it reminded us of our shared values and our ironclad and unbreakable friendship. I think Prime Minister Netanyahu should listen to the President’s speech carefully and understand our relationship is truly strained,” Schatz said. “Some of those values that make us so passionate about Israel’s relationship with the United States would cause him to intervene against settler violence and take some actions to recalibrate his Democracy.”

“I think he recognized both what Republicans and Democrats have done to support Israel,” GOP Sen. Rick Scott of Florida said of the speech.

Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, also said it was a “well composed” speech.

“He underscored our shared values and was open about the challenges that Israel faces and the cracks in their national resolve on some issues. I think it is terrific to underscore our common bond,” Romney said.

The address to Congress comes a day after President Joe Biden welcomed Herzog to the White House, a visit meant to demonstrate steadfast American commitment to Israel and its security.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy along with other congressional leaders announced the planned address at the end of June. In making the announcement, McCarthy said “the world is better off when America and Israel work together,” and referenced his recent visit to the Israeli Knesset.

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s Kristin Wilson, Melanie Zanona, Kevin Liptak and Jack Forrest contributed to this report.