US congressman demands explanation for chilly reception in Israel

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

US Congressman says Israelis snubbed him

TEL AVIV, Israel — A visiting U.S. congressman lashed out at Israel’s number two diplomat Wednesday, saying he was snubbed by the Foreign Ministry and demanding an official clarification.

Rep. William Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts and a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, is heading a congressional delegation to the region. The trip is hosted by J Street, a liberal Jewish lobbying group that presents itself as an alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — one of Washington’s most powerful lobbies.

J Street, which supports President Barack Obama’s push for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, says it sought a meeting for the U.S. representatives with Israeli diplomats but was turned down.

The Foreign Ministry dismissed the complaint, saying in response that it did not need mediators to set up meetings with U.S. officials.

The snub appeared aimed at J Street. Israel’s government has been critical of the group’s programs, which are more dovish than those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish government.

Speaking to reporters in Tel Aviv, Delahunt said he was surprised and disappointed to read an Israeli newspaper report that he was being boycotted by the Foreign Ministry for his affiliation with J Street and identified Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon as the culprit.

“We were puzzled that the Deputy Foreign Minister has apparently attempted to block our meetings with senior officials in the Prime Minister’s office and Foreign Ministry — questioning either our own support of Israel or that we would even consider traveling to the region with groups that the deputy foreign minister has so inaccurately described as ‘anti-Israel’,” Delahunt said.

“In our opinion this is an inappropriate way to treat elected representatives of Israel’s closest ally who are visiting the country.”

Delahunt asked the Israeli government “for a clarification of its stance toward this and future delegations.”

Ayalon’s office said the deputy minister was prepared to meet any elected officials, especially from the U.S. Congress, but he “didn’t need mediators.”

Ayalon is a member of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s hardline Yisrael Beiteinu party, which is a senior partner in Netanyahu’s hawkish coalition government.

Ayalon, who is also a former ambassador to the U.S., has questioned J Street’s commitment to Israel, criticizing the group earlier this week for describing itself as both pro-Israel and pro-peace.

“The thing that troubles me is that they don’t present themselves as to what they really are,” he said. “They should not call themselves pro-Israeli.”

That categorization upset Delahunt, who called J Street a pro-Israel voice with support in the American Jewish community. He said it was “unwise” to misrepresent legitimate disagreements as questioning support for Israel.

Four other U.S. representatives were traveling with Delahunt — Democrats Donald Payne of New Jersey, Lois Capps of California, Bob Filner of California and Mary Jo Kilroy of Ohio.

Last month Ayalon sparked a crisis when he humiliated the Turkish ambassador to Israel by forcing him to sit on a lower seat, keeping a Turkish flag out of their meeting and not shaking his hand. The crisis with Turkey was resolved only after Israel officially apologized.

Delahunt added that as chairman of the House subcommittee on Europe, he was “not unaware of the deputy foreign minister’s behavior.”

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