J  Street won a small victory this week by bringing Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon to – apparently unwittingly – boycott members of the US Congress, who became collateral damage in his attempt to sideline the Washington-based “pro-peace” group.

J Street should stop calling itself “pro-Israel,” Ayalon insisted to a gathering of US Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, and instructed the Foreign Ministry to deny meetings to a small delegation of five Democratic members of the House of Representatives who were in Israel this week at the behest of J Street and the Washington-based Churches for Middle East Peace.

Ayalon apparently did not foresee that the members of Congress might take the move more personally than he had intended.

“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 US-Israeli special relationship,” said Bill Delahunt, Democrat from Massachusetts.

One Foreign Ministry official, a man whose privately-expressed political views are not those of the deputy foreign minister, admitted that J Street had scored a political victory, but said it was a Pyrrhic one.

“The Foreign Ministry is very angry with J Street. They demanded to push themselves into the meetings with the representatives,” something ministry officials were instructed not to allow. “In the final analysis, they are happily harming Israel’s image once again, this time from Jerusalem. They’re using the American representatives to bash Israel. How can you be a friend of Israel and behave in a way that is so hurtful and arrogant and damaging? They didn’t make any friends in Israel this week.”

BRUISED EGOS aside, it’s important to note that it was Ayalon, not Ben-Ami, who walked headlong into this duel, bashing J Street just in time for their own delegation to read of it in the morning papers. Furthermore, it’s not difficult to understand that J Street want to attend meetings for a delegation it funded and organized. Would the Foreign Ministry ask leaders of AIPAC or AJC to sit in the hall while it meets legislators brought by those organizations?

J Street suffers from a trust deficit in Israel that is partly of its own making. Over the past two years, it tried to hedge its bets on Iran, going beyond a White House-like urging of dialogue to actually criticize those who talked of “consequences” for Iran if the dialogue failed. Its position on Goldstone took time to become clear, a gap that suggests to many that the group’s new position – opposed to the report, but supporting an Israeli inquiry into possible transgressions suggested in it – is born of tactical, not moral, principles.

For two years now, the question in Israel, certainly on the Right but also often in the mainstream Left, has been, “Who is J Street? And what, exactly, do they support?” To his credit, J Street director Jeremy Ben Ami seems to understand this, and used the current trip to try and put Israeli doubts to rest. Thus, he told Israeli reporters in Tel Aviv on Wednesday that J Street “urged members of Congress to vote for additional sanctions on Iran” and “urged the United States to prevent the [Goldstone] Report from moving forward in the United Nations.” Anti-Iran, anti-Goldstone; what more can you ask from a “pro-Israel” organization?

Some might still be bothered that Ben-Ami seems to support a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem, but so does Ehud Barak. It might be similarly annoying for some that he demands Israeli investigation of allegations contained in the Goldstone Report (a report that espouses the blanket conclusions that Israel willfully targeted innocents and that Hamas did not), but at least he has the nous to anchor that call in similar statements by the likes of Dan Meridor and Menahem Mazuz.

Ayalon stumbled badly,  critics say, and the Foreign Ministry’s excuses won’t save him. If American legislators with pro-Israel records say J Street is kosher, that creates a new political reality with which the Israeli Right must contend. Either attack the elected American legislators or let J Street have a place around the table. What other option is there?

Love it or hate it, it would seem, J Street won this round fair and square.

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