The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to impose an outright ban on U.S. flights to, from or over Israel which began on Tuesday, July 22, and which was extended through a second 24-hour period the following day, is unprecedented in terms of its scope and given the U.S. relationship with Israel and the specific incident out of which the ban allegedly arose. The FAA’s standards for determining whether a U.S. flag carrier can fly to every other spot in the world are different from — and more accommodating to travel than — the standard the United States has applied to Israel for the last 48 hours.
First, the FAA imposed a complete ban on U.S. flights into Israel, not just a partial ban and not just an advisory or the standard “should avoid” language. Second, the FAA imposed the ban on a host country which is one of America’s closest, longest-standing allies. Third, the ban against Israel’s Ben Gurion airport was imposed after a piece of shrapnel – created when Israel shot down a rocket fired by terrorists in Gaza – hit an Israeli home about a mile from the airport, it was not the rocket itself which struck near the airport and it wasn’t a rocket that could have hit a jet airliner, in any event.
So why did the FAA take this unusual step, one that is potentially economically catastrophic for our ally Israel?
There are really only two possible explanations: The first one is that the ban was imposed in order to protect the lives of American citizens. The second explanation, one that has been raised quietly here and there, and loudly in at least one office on Capital Hill, is that the ban was imposed in order to grab Israel by the back of its neck and force it into a ceasefire. That ceasefire would be imposed on the Jewish State before it is able to accomplish the mission it has set for itself after years of terrorist attacks with thousands of rockets.
Most people assumed the first explanation was the basis for the FAA ban. But the evidence does not add up. Nor does the historical record support the claims uttered by a State Department spokesperson that neither the White House nor the State Department played a role in the FAA decision to issue the categorical ban.
Marie Harf, at the State Department’s daily press briefing on Tuesday, claimed that the travel ban decision was warranted “for the safety of United States citizens.” She claimed that the FAA, “in response to the recent attack at Ben Gurion Airport – in the vicinity of Ben Gurion Airport” believed it was important to issue the ban.
The Jewish Press spoke at length with a former naval intelligence officer, Commander J.E. Dyer (ret.) about the FAA ban on U.S. flights to Israel.
FLIGHT BAN ON ISRAEL DISPROPORTIONATE, UNPRECEDENTED AND POLITICALLY DRIVEN
She made several categorical statements. First, the FAA ban on Israel was shocking and she believes it was absolutely a political decision rather than a decision made to secure the safety of U.S. citizens. Second, the ban is wholly disproportionate to the incident. Proof of that is what the FAA has done in response to far more dangerous and frequent attacks directly on airports in areas of concentrated violence which have gone on at least as long, if not longer, than the current situation in Gaza. Fourth, other than complete flight bans into North Korea and, currently, Eastern Ukraine, there are no complete bans on airports in any country in the world for U.S. airlines.
Is there a sane person on the planet who imagines that the threat to American airlines by North Korea is anything like that posed by the Gang That Can’t Shoot Straight Terrorists in Gaza? And the militarized pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine do indeed have the weapons, the ability and the will to shoot airplanes out of the sky – they’ve already done it more than once.
Absent those two militarily sophisticated enemies of the United States, Israel’s is the only airport on which a categorical ban has been placed.
What about other violent settings around the world? Every single one has merely a “should avoid” safety warning. That’s true for Syria, for Iraq, for Iran, for Yemen and for the Sinai Peninsula.
Dyer pointed out that when she served in the U.S. military in Bosnia-Herzogovina in the 1990′s, when it was an official war zone, the FAA refrained from issuing a U.S. flight ban.
Why would that be? If the FAA is so concerned about the air safety of American citizens, how come there is no flight ban on Afghanistan or Pakistan?
The answer, according to Dyer, is commerce.
A primary, if not the primary, relationship the U.S. has with most countries is commerce. A travel ban to any nation cuts off that commercial relationship in a profound way. The FAA is tasked with ensuring the safety of American citizens, but a central concern is also the continuation of relationships between nations.
And that is why Dyer finds it inconceivable that the FAA would take such an anomolous step without close consultation with the State Department and with the White House.
“The FAA simply does not have the latitude to do this by itself,” Dyer explained. As she explained in a must-read article about the ban, the decision either did come directly from the White House, or was approved by the president. Or if it wasn’t, it should have been.
“Cutting off her commercial airport from U.S. carriers is inherently a presidential-level decision, and Obama is responsible whether he made it or not,” Dyer wrote.
“I was shocked when I heard about the flight ban on Israel,” Dyer said.
There are several glaring distinctions between the action taken by the FAA with respect to its ban on U.S. flights into and out of Israel and other actions it has taken when local hostilities create a security concern for the government entity responsible for air traffic and safety.
There are, unfortunately, quite a few places around the globe right now where violent conflicts are taking place in proximity to airports. Syria, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, the Sinai Peninsula, Yemen and the Ukraine spring immediately to mind. In fact, there has been a civil war raging in Syria for three years now, in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. The FAA has yet to issue a single total ban on U.S. flights to Syria. The same is true in Iraq. And in both of those last two countries, at least one of the combatants have and have used surface to air missiles.
In Pakistan, the situation is even worse. Within a thirty day period there have been multiple attacks on commercial airports, one in Peshawar and another on the airport in Karachi. And yet, U.S. airlines continue to fly into and out of both the Peshawar and Karachi airports, with merely a simple safety warning from the FAA.
On June 24, just a month ago, A Pakistani Taliban offshoot attacked an A310 Airbus as it landed at the Peshawar airport. The attack was launched from the roof of a nearby school. One passenger was killed and three crew members were injured. And in the Karachi attack, nearly a dozen Taliban terrorists stormed the airport with the intention of maintaining a long siege.
No ban on U.S. flights into Pakistan.
So, there goes the safety concern. It isn’t irrational for a government agency to seek to limit the dangers its citizens may encounter abroad. But it is something approaching irrational – and it may even be worse than that – for a government agency to respond so strongly, so completely and so swiftly over a relatively minor incident when wars being waged on a regular basis around other airports, and direct attacks on airports and efforts to hold hostages in airports result in far more lackadaisical responses.
Dyer’s conclusion, one held by many who may not be saying it out loud, or in mixed company, is that the FAA ban is “clearly political.” She went so far as to say that the flight ban is worse than an economic boycott because those only target specific products. What the FAA has done is, essentially, created an economic ban on a whole country: Israel.
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.
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