In the end, it is likely that an Israeli programming oversight led to the US Federal Aviation Administration banning US flights from Ben-Gurion Airport.
The Iron Dome missile defense system doesn’t much care about Hamas missiles if they’re heading to open fields. But in this case, the open field in question was too close to the airport for the FAA’s comfort.
That’s the technical side of the story, but there is probably a very political side to it, too.
Someone in the US government wanted Israel to sweat, and a “banning” of US commercial aircraft using Israel’s international hub went far beyond other FAA advisories and warnings in dangerous locales such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ukraine, Iraq, Yemen and Syria.
“The prohibition on Ben-Gurion is uniquely stringent and inconsistent with FAA practices elsewhere,” wrote Commander (ret) J. E. Dyer, a former US Naval Intelligence officer.
Dyer also argued that the FAA decision to “cut off Israel’s commercial airport... is inherently a presidential-level decision.”
If the FAA made the decision by itself, the unsupervised procedure was a scandal.
If it was made in consultation with the State Department or the White House, the banning seriously undermines the US-Israel relationship.
Yes, the FAA ban was quickly rescinded, but the damage it caused is not properly understood in Washington.
Some Washington dimwit had no idea how profoundly important Ben-Gurion Airport is to the Israeli ethos. It is more than Israel’s international entry and exit point. The airport was the vital gateway for immigrants from Yemen, the Soviet Union, Ethiopia and India. Last week, hundreds of immigrants arrived from France and the United States. The airport received the survivors and heroes of the Entebbe raid on the anniversary of the United States’ bicentenary. It symbolizes Israel’s raison d’être as a Jewish state.
Moreover, Ben-Gurion Airport is viewed as one of Israel’s lifelines. After Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on Yom Kippur in 1973, Israelis stood outside the airport to cheer the giant US Galaxy aircraft delivering emergency military assistance for the besieged Israel Defense Forces. In times of war, Israeli reserve soldiers rush back from overseas through BG.
A similar lifeline is the naval route from the Far East to the port of Eilat. The Egyptian blockade of the Straits of Tiran to stop shipping to Israel is considered a casus belli for the 1967 war. To this day, the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) maintains an observation post in the Straits. Israel takes its lifelines very seriously.
Ben-Gurion Airport is a vital hub for Israel’s tourism, defense, business, ties to the Jewish world, and confidence. Israeli businesses, factories and companies cannot function properly without the planes of FedEx and UPS.
Within hours of the announcement that the FAA rescinded its ban, Hamas renewed its barrages against the area of the airport, perhaps hoping the United States would close the airport again.
There is no way Israel would allow Hamas to close or again threaten to shut this vital artery, especially if its leaders sensed that the United States was not firmly in its corner. On the eve of the 1967 war, US President Lyndon Johnson promised Israel’s prime minister Levi Eshkol to “secure a declaration by the principal maritime powers asserting the right of passage through the Strait [of Tiran].” He added that the United States would “explore on an urgent basis” a British suggestion for an “international naval presence in the area of the Strait of Tiran.” Johnson warned Israel not to act unilaterally, saying, “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone.”
Eshkol, a noted Yiddishist, no doubt responded to these empty promises with “a nechtiker tog!” (“fuggedaboutit” in Brooklynese). Israel decided to go it alone.
Israel’s renewed furious assault this week on Hamas’ underground headquarters, tunnels and rocket arsenals should be viewed as designed to go it alone, not only to remove threats against Israel’s citizens, but also the threat against the strategic airport, particularly after the perception of American fickleness.
The other damage done by the FAA ban is the long-term body-blow to the “landfor- peace” negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. It is difficult to believe today that any Israeli government will now surrender large segments of the West Bank from which Palestinian gunners can shut down Ben-Gurion Airport.
“Ben-Gurion Airport is within six miles from the West Bank,” explained US Vice Admiral (ret.) Brian Peterman in 2010. He was dispatched by the Bush White House National Security Council to gauge the threats to the airport. “That puts [it] within very easy range for typical mortar or indirect fire from the hills overlooking [it]. An attack that way could certainly disrupt ground operations within the...
Peterman’s study dealt primarily with the danger of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS).
“The threat to Ben-Gurion is very real from the West Bank and the ocean approaches to... [the] airport,” he warned.
It is very disappointing and even incredible that after six years of the US administration’s attempts at diplomacy in the Middle East, and despite the talented US ambassador to Israel who seems to “get it,” the decision-makers in Washington don’t understand what makes Israel tick.
The author served as a senior diplomat in Israel’s embassy in Washington. Today, he is a public affairs consultant, director of publications at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and publisher of Israeldailypicture.com. He resides near Jerusalem. The opinions expressed here are his own.