The Ministry for Isolating Israel

It is hard to imagine a more harmful and unnecessary blow to Israel's foreign relations than boycotting U.S. congressmen and their escorts from a Jewish organization.

The stupidity that has overtaken the Foreign Ministry under the leadership of Avigdor Lieberman and Danny Ayalon sank to a new low this week. When a delegation of American congressmen, who came to Israel at the initiative of the leftist Jewish lobby J Street, asked to meet with senior Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem they encountered obstacles and delays. Then, at the last minute, the Foreign Ministry agreed to arrange the meetings - but said the congressmen had to come alone, without their J Street escorts. The guests refused and convened a press conference at which they called the behavior of Israel's government a disgrace.

It is hard to imagine a more harmful and unnecessary blow to Israel's foreign relations than boycotting U.S. congressmen and their escorts from a Jewish organization. No bureaucratic justification - such as "the professionals advised against meeting with the group," which the Foreign Ministry is now claiming - can excuse this. The support of Congress and the U.S. Jewish community are Israel's greatest strategic assets; over their dozens of years in Congress, the delegation members have voted to continue American military aid to Israel. The fact that senior Foreign Ministry officials even hesitated about whether to meet with the visitors from Capitol Hill attests to a serious flaw in their judgment.

But the government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Lieberman is more concerned with ideological purity, and it views J Street as a hostile organization - in the same way it goes after local left-wing groups and human rights organizations by painting them as "anti-Israel." Israel's ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, boycotted J Street's conference several months ago. Relations between the organization and the embassy have improved since then, but the top brass in Jerusalem still favor boycotting it. Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Dan Meridor was the only senior Israeli official who agreed to meet with the delegation, which also met with the king of Jordan and even settler leaders.

J Street defines itself as a pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby, established to serve as a counterweight to the veteran pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, whose views are to J Street's right. According to J Street officials, the new lobby represents some 150,000 Jews and enjoys close ties with Barack Obama's White House. The Israeli government was angry over the group's calls to exhaust diplomatic negotiations with Iran before stepping up sanctions against it, and for an internal Israeli investigation into the Goldstone report's allegations. But instead of trying to explain its positions and convince J Street, the Foreign Ministry preferred to reject its legitimacy.

The congressmen and their escorts deserve an apology from the government. Even more urgently needed is a reassessment of Israel's foreign relations in the Lieberman era. Instead of bolstering Israel's international standing, it seems the foreign minister and his deputy seek to deepen its isolation. Under their leadership, the Foreign Ministry has turned into a thought police and a ministry for silencing criticism. Following angry outbursts against the Scandinavians and the Turks, Israel is now humiliating U.S. congressmen, whose support is essential. Before any more harm is done, Netanyahu must rescind his problematic appointments at the top of the Foreign Ministry and find replacements for both Lieberman and Ayalon.