There is some good news under the sun (well, not exactly the sun on this wintry Friday). The Israeli government has made clear that the boycott of J Street is over. Actually, the Israeli government itself was not engaging in the boycott. During the recent trip to Israel with five members of Congress, the J Street Education Fund-sponsored Delegation met with high-level Israeli officials from across the political spectrum. Even the head of the Yesha Council (which represents the settler movement) met with the group.
But that wasn’t the story. The big news coming out of the trip was that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon ignored J Street’s request that they meet with the Delegation (which, remember, included five House members). J Street was told nothing about why or even if its Delegation was being boycotted. But reporters from two major Israeli dailies were told that the Foreign Ministry had instructed officials not to meet with the Delegation.
This boycott did not sit well with members of Congress who, almost without exception, meet with high-level Israeli officials whenever they visit Israel. America is Israel’s primary ally in the world and Congress supplies it with the essential aid Israel needs to maintain its security. It is, to put it nicely, not smart to boycott US legislators no matter which organization is escorting them to the country.
Apparently, the Israeli government as a whole could see the blunder that the Foreign Ministry had committed and the Foreign Ministry’s action was condemned by key Israeli leaders (including former Foreign Minister and Kadima party chief Tzipi Livni).
And this week, criticism of the Ministry’s misstep was taken up in the Knesset. At Wednesday’s session, Kadima member Nachman Shai rose to ask why the J Street Delegation was not received by the Foreign Minister or his Deputy.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the bottom line is that neither the Foreign Minister nor his Deputy, who is sitting here in this room, received the Delegation from the US. I don’t understand why that happened. I want to denounce it, I want to hear explanations and mainly I want to hear, Mr. Deputy Foreign Minister, that it was a mistake, that it shouldn’t have happened, and that if J Street or any other group concerned with Jewish affairs and Israeli affairs in the US comes to Israel, the Foreign Ministry, including your honor, will meet them, because this is the most important dialogue that Israel should conduct.”
Former Labor Party leader, Amir Peretz, added: “I address the Prime Minister: you are going to the US in a few weeks. You are going to a meeting with AIPAC. That is fine. I am for it. It is very important. We must by no means minimize or underestimate the big debt we have to AIPAC. But here is your opportunity, Mr. Prime Minister. Invite them. Don’t go to the J Street conference but invite the J Street board to you. Listen to them. Give a feeling to all of the Jewish organizations from all ends of the spectrum, even if they don’t think like you, that they are wanted and that Israel welcomes them for making an effort to raise support for Israel, even if there are differences over the various issues on the agenda.”
Various members spoke — it was a very long debate. Some said the Foreign Ministry was right. Most said it was wrong. The Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, who had (along with the Foreign Minister) refused to see the Delegation, denied that the snub was intentional. It was just a matter of scheduling. But few were buying that. Everyone, whether they approved of the boycott or not, knew that it was no accident.
The funniest moment was when Ayalon told Peretz, “I don’t think you know the difference between J Street and K Street.” Ilan Gilon of the Meretz party defended Peretz: “It is very disrespectful to say to a Knesset member, a former Defense Minister, that he does not know the difference between J Street and K Street.”
It was a typical Knesset debate, bearing no resemblance to debates in our Congress which are Park Avenue tea parties by comparison. “Arrogant” “Impudent” “The street knows more than you.” “Insolent.” “Pigs.”
But, in the end, the sentiment of the Knesset was clear and the Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, speaking for the Netanyahu government, said this: “”Since you asked what is the policy of the Foreign Ministry towards J Street, I want to be clear about it. We will treat it exactly as we will treat any other Jewish organization in the US. There are organizations from the right, organizations from the left, organizations from the center, period.”
And that was that. From now on, J Street delegations — and J Street itself — will be treated like any other pro-Israel organization. At least, that is now the official government position.
Once again, some Israelis made clear that they do not make the equation — so often made here — that being pro-Israel requires marching in lockstep behind the Israeli government. (The Knesset debate demonstrated that). Perhaps the status quo pro-Israel organizations will, as is their custom, follow Israel’s lead in recognizing not only that J Street is here to stay but that it is a legitimate pro-Israel organization and that being pro-peace does not make one any less pro-Israel. I sure hope so. The ball is in their court.