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Delahunt’s journey to Mideast upended

Canceled sessions stir debate among advocates for Israel

Representative William Delahunt (second from right) met with Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor (far right) of Israel during his recent visit to Israel. Representative William Delahunt (second from right) met with Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor (far right) of Israel during his recent visit to Israel.
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / February 27, 2010

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WASHINGTON - At first, the trip went smoothly: Five US congressmen, led by William Delahunt, a Quincy Democrat, drank tea last week with the king of Jordan, ate breakfast with an Israeli settlers’ group, and lunched with Palestinian officials, encouraging all sides to move toward peace.

But then controversy erupted: Delahunt woke to a headline in Israel’s largest newspaper stating that the Israeli Foreign Ministry was “boycotting’’ his delegation and that some meetings Delahunt hoped to have would not take place. The reason, according to the newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, was that the trip had been sponsored by J Street, a liberal Jewish group that is often critical of Israeli government policies.

The diplomatic imbroglio, which Israeli officials have portrayed as exaggerated by the press, has helped spark a vigorous debate both in Israel and the United States over whether Israel is alienating allies by responding too fiercely to criticism and perceived slights. It has also added fuel to an ongoing debate among American Jews over what it means to be “pro-Israel’’ and how vocal they should be in pushing the Jewish state to make concessions in negotiations with Palestinians over peace.

“This is a moment when I think American politicians need to help Israel help itself,’’ said Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street. “For America’s sake, as well as Israel’s sake, we have got to end this conflict.’’

For decades, many American Jewish groups - including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a long-established and influential lobby - have been reluctant to second-guess the policies of Israel’s elected government.

When they disagree with Israel, “they do it behind closed doors,’’ said Martin Solomon, Boston-area blogger and businessman who writes the Israel-oriented blog Solomonia. “They don’t want to give ammunition to people who mean to do real harm to the state.’’

Two years ago, J Street was formed to lobby for active US involvement in peace efforts, even if it means taking positions at odds with the Israeli government. J Street states that taking steps toward peace is in Israel’s long-term interests, even if the government does not support them now. The group backed President Obama’s call for an end to settlement activity on land it hopes will become a Palestinian state. It also opposes military action against Iran at this time.

Buoyed by the liberal demographic that elected Obama, the group has grown from a little-known office with a staff of six to a nationwide organization with more than 30 employees, including six full-time lobbyists. In 2008, it gave $600,000 to congressional candidates. This year, it hopes to give away $1 million.

When J Street was newly formed, it had difficulty attracting attention from Congress. But it found a receptive ear in Delahunt, who has consistently voted for military aid to Israel, but at the same time pushed for the creation of a Palestinian state. Delahunt, who once helped organize the first Irish-Jewish Seder in Boston, agreed to lead J Street’s first delegation to the Middle East, a crucial milestone that showed the liberal lobby is being taken seriously in Washington.

J Street’s views have found fertile ground in Massachusetts. Two weeks ago, about 260 people attended the launch of J Street Boston at the Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline. Boston was home to one of the largest chapters of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, a Jewish peace group, which dissolved to join J Street’s efforts. Alan Solomont, a Democratic fund-raiser who headed the Boston Jewish Federation before becoming ambassador to Spain, helped found J Street. Students at Harvard, Brandeis, and Tufts have started university chapters.

But the group has sparked questions over whether American Jews, who voted overwhelmingly for Obama, should push Israel to accept risks as they bargain with Palestinian leaders.

“If you are not living in Israel, if you are not serving in the army . . . is that a morally tenable posture to take?’’ said Robert Leikind, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Boston office.

Israeli voters appear to be more skeptical about the prospects for peace. Last year, they supported the Gaza war and elected a hawkish government that includes Avigdor Lieberman, a far-right politician who became foreign minister and who would not meet Delahunt.

According to the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Lieberman and his deputy, Danny Ayalon, a former ambassador to Washington, refused meetings with the US congressmen as long as members of J Street and Churches for Middle East Peace, the other trip co-sponsor, were present, though it is not unusual for the sponsors to attend such meetings.

The Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the congressmen were welcome, but that it “regrets the attempt to impose who will be present in the meetings, which is unacceptable in diplomatic life.’’

“We all took umbrage,’’ said Delahunt, who is seeking a clarification from the Israeli government. “We believe this is an inappropriate way to treat the elected representatives of Israel’s closest ally.’’

Delahunt said he saw the meetings that did not take place as “the product of a pattern of a behavior by the deputy foreign minister,’’ not a position taken by the Israeli government. Delahunt was able to meet with Israeli officials who do not work for the foreign ministry.

“I think it is fair to say that their foreign minister and the deputy foreign minister really represent the far right within the political spectrum,’’ he said.

Delahunt referred to a series of recent diplomatic rows involving the foreign ministry. Last month, after a Turkish private television channel aired a fictional show that portrayed Israeli soldiers as ruthless killers, Ayalon held a televised meeting in which he sat Turkey’s ambassador on a low chair in a deliberate display of disrespect. (Ayalon apologized after Turkey threatened to downgrade diplomatic ties.)

Last year, after a leading Swedish daily published a report that said Israeli soldiers had harvested organs from a Palestinian prisoner, Ayalon demanded that Sweden condemn the article in an episode that raised tension between the two countries.

In the fall, Ayalon sharply criticized Nadav Tamir, Israel’s consul general in Boston, after he sent a memo warning that Israel’s policies were alienating American Jews. The memo was leaked, and Tamir was briefly recalled to Jerusalem to explain.

A spokesman in Israel’s embassy in Washington, Jonathan Peled, said the incidents are unrelated. He said the Israeli Embassy “will be happy’’ to arrange a meeting with Delahunt, as is customary when members of Congress return from Israel.

“We have no differences with congressman Delahunt,’’ he said. “We are not responsible for the hype in the media or for any misunderstandings.’’

But Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, said he was “shocked that members of the US Congress were given a hard time by the Israeli foreign ministry, given how much American taxpayer money, political, and diplomatic support has been given to Israel over the years.’’

“The foreign minister has articulated a policy that Israel is to respond to every perceived slight, and as a result, there have been these kind of embarrassing situations,’’ Cook said.

Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel, said: “The more they do things to try to snuff out J Street, the more they raise its profile. . . . When it rises to the level of offending congressmen who are supportive of Israel, they should reconsider their approach.’’