WASHINGTON (JTA) — The head of a Democratic congressional delegation to Israel is criticizing the country’s deputy foreign minister for refusing to meet with the group over its connection to J Street.
Danny Ayalon, the deputy foreign minister, declined to meet Wednesday with the delegation of five Democratic Congress members led by Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) due to the trip’s sponsorship by the J Street Education Fund and Churches for Middle East Peace.
Additionally, JTA has learned that the Israeli army blocked the delegation from a planned tour of the Gaza Strip.
"In our opinion this is an inappropriate way to treat elected representatives of Israel’s closest ally who are visiting the country — and who through the years have been staunch supporters of the U.S.-Israeli special relationship," Delahunt said at a news conference.
Joining Delahunt in the delegation are Reps. Bob Filner and Lois Capps, both California Democrats, Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio) and Donald Payne (D-N.J.). The five-day trip included meetings with top Palestinian officials, the king and prime minister of Jordan, and members of the Knesset.
Maariv reported that the Foreign Ministry recommended the Israeli prime minister and president not meet the delegation, and permitted only a meeting with Dan Meridor, one of five deputy prime ministers. Sources within J Street expressed their dismay.
On Thursday, the delegation met with the opposition leader, Tzipi Livni, who also implicitly criticized Ayalon in a statement.
"Even if there are difference of opinion, and there are, that is not the way to treat Israel’s friends who want what is good for it," she said.
J Street, which describes itself as "pro-Israel and pro-peace," favors U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinians, and criticized Israel’s invasion of Gaza. In recent months, however, it also has backed Israel on several high-profile issues and lined up behind immediate passage of new U.S. sanctions against Iran. Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, recently told The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles that "the J Street controversy has come a long way toward resolving" and said the group had moved "much more into the mainstream."
Ayalon offered to meet with the lawmakers as long as representatives of the sponsoring groups were not present, a condition the delegation rejected.
In response to Delahunt’s request for an explanation, the Foreign Ministry released a statement that said it was “happy to arrange such meetings for U.S. Congress members currently in Israel, without any mediators. The Foreign Ministry is troubled by the attempt to dictate who will be present at such meetings, which is unacceptable in diplomatic life."
Meetings between Israeli officials and such delegations are typically mediated by representatives of pro-Israel groups.
Ayalon already had voiced his displeasure with J Street on Tuesday when addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, telling the audience that “[J Street] cannot say that they are pro-Israel”– a claim that Delahunt branded as inaccurate.