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Herzog's US visit whitewashes Israeli crimes, but reasons for hope stand out

Israeli president's address to Congress was a pure exercise in public relations as American support for Palestinian rights reportedly higher than ever
US Vice President Kamala Harris and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy applaud as Israeli President Isaac Herzog addresses a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington on 19 July 2023 (AFP)

At the same time that the Israeli government advances an unprecedented number of settlement units and implements dozens of discriminatory laws, western politicians continue to praise Israel's "democratic" and "liberal" values.

It is as if they are desperate to find any excuse to protect Israel no matter what it does.

This attitude was at the core of the recent address by Israeli President Isaac Herzog to the US Congress, where once again the message of impunity for Israeli crimes and violations has been bolstered over any considerations for international law, human rights, or even the very principles of the once US-sponsored Middle East Peace Process.

Herzog's speech sufficiently represented the interests of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He glorified a mythical Israel as a beacon of democracy and equality as if dozens of Israeli laws denying Palestinians their rights do not exist, while Israeli Jews enjoy the full rights of the state.

More than 70 discriminatory laws against Palestinians are in place, constituting the crime of apartheid, according to a number of human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and even Israel's own B'Tselem.

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Examples include the Jewish Nation-State Law, in which self-determination is reserved for Jews only; the Law of Return, permitting only Jews to enter and obtain citizenship of the state; the Absentees' Property Law, which codifies the state's theft of Palestinian refugee property; and the latest ban on Palestinian family reunifications, denying Palestinian Christian and Muslim families in Jerusalem or Israel the right to live together if one spouse has a Palestinian ID.

No interest in peace

Herzog did not speak about the two-state solution but about Israel's "Palestinian neighbours" - as though they are not under Israeli occupation - while playing the classic blame game. What Herzog also failed to mention is that the "neighbours" comprise more than 50 percent of the population in territories controlled by Israel, which grants its demographic minority full rights while denying the civil and human rights of the Palestinian people.

The Trump administration's actions in support of Israeli annexation and denial of Palestinian rights have not been reversed by the current government

Furthermore, he did not mention that the territory occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem, belongs to Palestine under international law. It is simply outrageous, including for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian-Americans, that US politicians would entertain the Nakba denial and occupation whitewashing by Herzog in Congress.

This was a pure exercise in public relations rather than an effort at making peace. At best, it was a personal attempt by the Israeli president to present credentials in Washington at a time when relations between the Biden administration and Netanyahu appear to be strained.

Their problems, however, are not related to the Palestinian people, whose denial of rights seems to have been normalised in Washington, but rather the internal Israeli disputes over Netanyahu's judicial reforms.

Yet the same US Congress that endorses Israel's policies against the Palestinian people did, not long ago, endorse South African apartheid. The vast majority of the steps taken by the Trump administration in support of Israeli annexation and denial of Palestinian rights have not been reversed by the present government, while Congress still considers the Palestine Liberation Organisation a terrorist organisation just as it did the African National Congress.

Herzog represents traditional Israeli diplomacy that covers up war crimes with a smile and a handshake. His representation of the Israeli government was sophisticated and tailored for an audience of people who were already willing to give him the podium.

Of course, he did not mention the radical Religious Zionists in his government because it is bad publicity. Meanwhile, the catastrophic plans by far-right settler and Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich are being implemented on the ground, plans that clearly call for a second Nakba with no Palestinian state, forcible displacement and apartheid.

Reasons for hope

But there are still reasons for optimism. The boycott that a number of members of Congress staged against the Israeli president's address is more significant than what some believe, as it represents the growing percentage of Americans who support Palestinian rights.

There is a growing consensus in the US human rights community recognising apartheid Israel, and more churches as well as other civil society organisations are calling to take concrete measures against the Israeli occupation, including by means of boycott and divestment.

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Those who support Israeli impunity seem to be overrepresented compared with US public opinion. Such signs could become a turning point in the struggle for freedom, justice, equality and peace. The Palestinian people and their allies will continue to struggle, wherever they are, for freedom, and renew calls on the US and European countries to take concrete measures of accountability to implement the long overdue inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. This should include actions against settler terrorism.

In addition, it has become clear that recognising the State of Palestine is an urgent step that the US and EU should be taking in order to confirm their support for a political solution rather than remaining silent about the practices of a government of settlers and other extremists to dictate the terms of engagement.

Efforts to whitewash Israeli policies will not make the Palestinian people disappear. At a moment when the Israeli government is implementing steps aimed at consolidating the annexation of all of historic Palestine, the answer from those who care about peace based on a rules-based world order should be to take action for Palestinian freedom rather than strengthening the Israeli occupation.

Herzog's speech in Congress represents the perpetuation of the status quo, in which Palestinian rights are denied. But the shift in US public opinion sympathetic to Palestinians and the congresspeople who boycotted the president's session represent a source of hope in the path to achieving Palestinian freedom and independence.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Ambassador Majdi Khaldi is a member of the Palestinian National Council and the Senior Diplomatic Advisor to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
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