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Five U.S. Congressmen on a visit here, which the left-wing American advocacy group J Street initiated, yesterday held a news conference in Tel Aviv to demand an official explanation for an apparent snub by Danny Ayalon, deputy foreign minister.

Tension between the Foreign Ministry and J Street was believed to be behind the unprecedented diplomatic rift between Israel and the U.S. Congress.

"It was with real surprise and disappointment that we read a headline in this morning's newspaper saying 'Foreign Ministry boycotts members of Congress,'" said Rep. William Delahunt (D-Massachusetts), who heads the delegation.

J Street director Jeremy Ben-Ami said at the news conference that he was confused by Ayalon's calling the lobby anti-Israel. "Our relations with Israel's embassy in Washington are on the mend...I hope this is no more than his personal opinion," he said.

Yesterday's events raised a storm in the Foreign Ministry and in Washington. J Street had asked for a meeting between the Congressmen and Ayalon or other senior ministry officials several weeks ago, Haaretz learned.

After numerous days of waiting, they were told ministry officials would meet only the Congressmen, without their J Street escorts, which the former refused, and the Foreign Ministry said there would be no meeting.

A senior Jerusalem source said the man who advised Ayalon and President Shimon Peres not to meet the delegation was Baruch Binah, deputy director general for North America in the ministry. Binah advised against the meeting because the delegation includes J Street members and a representative of Churches for Middle East Peace, which the Foreign Ministry sees as anti-Israeli.

"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 continued.

"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 went on to ask the government for clarification regarding Ayalon's boycott, saying, "We ask the Israeli government to clarify its position toward this delegation and future congressional delegations."

Delahunt said he became familiar with Ayalon's behavior during Israel's recent diplomatic crisis with Turkey in which Ayalon had humiliated the Turkish envoy in Israel. He implied Ayalon's treatment of the delegation was in line with this behavior.

The Foreign Ministry issued a statement yesterday saying, "We always welcome American members of Congress who visit Israel and are happy to arrange meetings for them with any political officials in Israel.

The Foreign Ministry is happy to arrange such meetings for U.S. Congressmen currently in Israel, without any mediators."

"The ministry is troubled by the attempt to dictate who will be present at such meetings, which is unacceptable in diplomatic life."