Israeli ministry ‘boycotted’ J Street
Jeremy Ben-Ami: director of dovish J Street
In what is being seen as an abrupt reversal of policy, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has tried to smooth over ruffled feathers after it apparently boycotted an American congressional delegation to Israel, sponsored by the left-wing advocacy group, J Street.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon allegedly refused to meet the five Congress members, and President Shimon Peres did not find time to meet them either.
But when the lack of appointments began raising eyebrows in Jerusalem and Washington, a senior diplomat was sent to meet the delegation and the ministry insisted that it had not snubbed them. On Wednesday, Mr Ayalon accused J Street of lying.
The Israeli government has had an uneasy relationship with J Street, set up two years ago to represent those in the American Jewish community who are critical of Israel's security policy and of the continuing occupation. J Street claims to support both Israel and the peace process but Israeli ministers and officials have joined the veteran pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, in branding J Street "dangerous".
Last year, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, turned down an invitation to address J Street's annual conference.
Since then, the relationship between the embassy and the Jewish organisation, which has considerable support in the Democratic Party and the Obama White House, has remained only low-level.
But there have been signs that relations have been thawing.
A series of recent statements and resolutions by J Street included support for a tough sanctions bill against Iran in the House of Representatives; a statement condemning the heckling of Mr Oren at the University of California, Irvine; and rejection of UN criticism of Israel.
These actions had led Ambassador Oren, who had been at the forefront of denouncing J Street, to change course and declare that "the J Street controversy has come a long way towards being resolved".
But now it appears that Mr Oren's gradual warming up to J Street did not reflect a change in Israeli policy toward the organisation. Rather it showed a willingness to acknowledge steps made by the group to strengthen its pro-Israel credentials, and recognition of its growing power.
Last month J Street took another step towards becoming a major national movement by opening chapters in key US cities.
This too came with a fair amount of controversy over whether Jewish community spaces should be rented to the dovish lobby, but it nonetheless moved J Street another step forward.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's executive director, expressed his disappointment at the decision of Israel's foreign ministry to boycott the congressional delegation, which got to meet only one Israeli minister, Dan Meridor, and the leader of the opposition, Tzipi Livni.
This, he said, "was just the latest in a series of indications that the foreign ministry in this government is less an open front-door to Israel than a checkpoint for ideological purity".
The Foreign Ministry responded with a statement saying that it was "happy to arrange meetings of this type, including with US congressmen in Israel at the moment, without need for intermediaries of any type".
Only groups on the left wing of the Jewish American organisational spectrum supported J Street on this issue. The mainstream Jewish establishment still steers clear from entering the debate, feeling, as one official with a major Jewish group said, that "nothing good could come out" of taking sides.