Reading the headlines these last few days, one could be excused for thinking the world has suddenly stepped back into the Middle Ages, where one state snags the citizens of another in order to secure the release of its own prisoners.
First Russia arrests and sentences Naama Issachar to 7.5 years in prison for having nine grams of cannabis in her checked luggage, an arrest that seems strongly connected to Moscow’s attempt to get Israel to extradite Alexei Burkov back to Russia, not the US.
Then an Israeli man, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, is arrested for crossing the border into Jordan, apparently trying to escape from the Israel Police. According to Israeli officials, this type of incident is not uncommon. However, this particular case took on an added dimension because of the administrative detention of two Jordanian-Palestinians in Israel for some two months.
All of a sudden, the Israeli arrested was not just a fugitive from the law in Israel, but was a bargaining chip in the hands of the Jordanians.
That, at least, is the way he was described by Nidal a-Taani, the head of the Jordanian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. The Jordanian Parliament is largely viewed in Jerusalem as hostile and extreme.
Taani was quoted as saying that, “From a political standpoint, we cannot talk about prisoner exchange with the occupation, but we can use the Israeli as a bargaining chip for two Jordanian prisoners in Israel.”
And that is a dangerous sentiment, a sentiment that sends us back to the hostage taking of the Middle Ages.
Israel does not randomly pick up strangers and hold them in detention for two months. While Israel is by no means infallible, if the courts in this country sanction holding on to the two Jordanians in administrative detention for as long as they have, there likely is a compelling security reason – especially since the authorities making this decision are well aware of the damage this could cause to Israel’s relations with Jordan, a state with which Israel enjoys a vital strategic relationship that greatly benefits both sides.
Despite what some may say about the Jewish state, it does not randomly pull two Jordanian visitors out of a line as they come into the country and hold them without charges “just because.” This, again, does not mean Israel does not err, but it does mean that it does not just grab and detain for weeks citizens from other countries.
But Taani’s comment indicates that he thinks this is the way the world should operate: “You grab our citizens, we grab yours.”
That sentiment, if not disavowed by Jordanian officials, could have a chilling effect on Israeli tourists to Jordan, or – even more significantly – Israelis traveling through Queen Alia International Airport in Amman.
Flying to Amman – and from there to points further east – was once an air route preferred by a few Israeli backpackers looking to save a few (hundred) dollars off their post-army trek to India or Vietnam. Increasingly, however, more and more Israelis are opting to fly through Amman to destinations further afield: not only in the East, but also to the US on Royal Jordanian.
As long as the airport is considered safe for Israelis traveling through, those numbers will surely grow. But once concern sets in that perhaps an Israeli will be detained in order to be held as a “bargaining chip,” travelers may ask themselves whether a lower-priced ticket is really worth the risk.
And while that might not matter to Taani – in fact while he may be thrilled that Israelis won’t be trodding on Jordanian soil – it is doubtful that Royal Jordanian or the airport itself would be too pleased, since these travelers generate revenue.
Israelis travel abroad... a lot. Tens of thousands of them travel through countries that, if not classified formally as enemy countries, are not too positively disposed toward Israel, such as Turkey and Qatar. Following what happened to Issachar in Russia, many Israelis will certainly ask whether flying through Moscow right now is the wisest travel choice as well.
Talk of using Israelis as “bargaining chips,” or the impression that this is what is being done, may – at least in the short term – lead people to re-evaluate where they fly, or more precisely, where they stop over. One thing it certainly does not do is add to anyone’s sense of security.