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Israeli PM Netanyahu declines meeting with visiting U.S. delegation, including McCollum

Note: This story has been updated. Please see below.

WASHINGTON — Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was warmly received by U.S. lawmakers, including being interrupted by 29 standing ovations during his address to a joint session of Congress.

However, a five-member Democratic House delegation travelling to Israel this week, including Rep. Betty McCollum. has been denied a request to meet with Netanyahu there. Israeli news agencies first reported this story today, and it was confirmed by McCollum’s office, which said that the group J Street requested a meeting on behalf of the delegation, and that it did not happen.

From Israel’s Ynetnews:

Congressman Steve Cohen was disappointed. “As members of congress who care deeply about the survival of a strong and vibrant Israel, we have been very pleased to meet with a broad array of Israeli leaders. Unfortunately, the Israeli prime minister and other senior ministers were not among them, which would have been appropriate and proper,” he said.

J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami was much less subtle, saying that the refusal of Israeli government members to meet with the representatives is an incomprehensible move. 

“It is impossilble to understand how it is in Israel’s interest for the Netanyahu government to show no respect to Members of Congress visiting Israel as guests, who vote year in and year out to provide military and other assistance to the state of Israel,” he said. 

The government of Israel told Ynetnews that “scheduling conflicts” prevented such a meeting.

Granted, there has been no small amount tension within the pro-Israel community about J Street as a group, and whether it’s too sympathetic to the Palestinian cause (and you can get some of that background here). But such meetings between members of Congress travelling abroad and foreign governments are so commonplace that one not happening — especially when requested — raises red flags.

The Israeli Embassy in Washington did not immediately return a call seeking comment, but I’m happy to update if and when they do.

Update: At close of business Monday, still nothing from the Israelis. Much more from McCollum, however, who was clearly not pleased by the slight…

The delegation spent two days in Egypt, where they met with Acting President Mohamed Tantawi and other senior leaders before heading to Israel.

In Israel, they were introduced on the floor of the Knesset (Israel’s legislature) by the speaker of the Knesset and met with Tzipi Livni, the head of the rival Kadima Party. However, not only were they denied a Netanyahu meeting, but also meetings with senior members of his Likud Party. The group also toured parts of the West Bank.

McCollum, responding to numerous media inquiries (including ours) issued this blistering statement:

“I am pleased to be in Israel and our delegation has been warmly and graciously welcomed. This fact-finding mission is about seeing Israel up close and listening to voices committed to ensuring lasting peace and security for Israel and the Palestinians.

“While it is disappointing not to have the opportunity to pay my respects to the Prime Minister, his recent comments while in Washington, DC only demonstrated that many of Mr. Netanyahu’s policies are impediments that prevent peace negotiations from going forward.  Israelis who are willing to make the tough political choices to make a more secure and peaceful future for their children are Israelis who will play a critical role in this process.”

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