FAA lifts ban on US flights to Israel, but not before accusations fly

Before the FAA ban was lifted, Secretary of State John Kerry met with an angry Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Meanwhile, some Obama administration critics found political intent in the agency’s order.

Baz Ratner/Reuters
Passengers walk past a sign pointing to a shelter at Ben Gurion International airport, near Tel Aviv on Thursday, July 24, 2014. The FAA lifted its ban on US carriers using Israel's Ben Gurion Airport late Wednesday night.

The Federal Aviation Administration lifted its ban on US carriers using Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport late Wednesday night – but not before the ban, which the agency said had been for safety considerations, spawned sharp political and diplomatic rows.

The ban was on the agenda Wednesday when Secretary of State John Kerry met in Jerusalem with an angry Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who urged the US diplomat to work to reverse the FAA action. Mr. Netanyahu and other Israeli officials blasted the ban as a “prize” to Hamas, the militant organization firing rockets into Israel.

In Washington, some critics of President Obama’s foreign policy had begun suggesting the federal agency’s action was a backdoor means of pressuring Israel into accepting a cease-fire with Hamas to end more than two weeks of fighting in Gaza.    

The FAA said in a statement that it was clearing the way for US-based airlines to resume their flights into the Tel Aviv airport after a security assessment and a review of “significant new information and measures the Government of Israel is taking to mitigate potential risks to civil aviation.”

The US air safety agency announced Tuesday what was initially a 24-hour flight ban after a rocket fired from Gaza crashed into a house less than a mile from the airport. The decision came less than a week after a missile took down a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet carrying 298 people over conflict-torn eastern Ukraine. Some US airlines had already canceled their flights into Israel before the announcement of the ban.

The FAA actions and debate over the safety of Israel’s principal airport came amid heightened attention to air transport in conflict zones. In addition to the Malaysia Airlines plane, which crashed in an area of Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists, several Ukrainian military jets and transport planes have been brought down recently by rebel rocket fire. On Thursday, Algerian officials confirmed that an Air Algerie airliner carrying at least 116 people crashed in an area of Mali racked by Islamist militant activity. The flight took place during adverse weather, officials said, according to the Associated Press.

At least one US airline, US Airways, announced Thursday it planned to resume service to Ben Gurion, while Delta Air Lines said it would decide whether to resume service independent of the FAA announcement.

Several European airlines continued their suspension of flights to Ben Gurion on Thursday, although those decisions were made before the FAA-equivalent European Aviation Safety Agency followed the US move by lifting an advisory it had issued Tuesday.

That advisory had recommended that European airlines avoid flying in and out of Israel. On Thursday, the agency called on national aviation authorities to base recommendations on using Ben Gurion on “thorough risk assessments, in particular using risk analysis made by operators.”

One Wednesday, both Air France and Lufthansa canceled flights to Tel Aviv. British Airways has maintained its service to Ben Gurion unchanged, stating Tuesday that it considered the airport safe.

The FAA insisted its decision to ban flights, in this case as in others, was based on safety considerations alone. That did not stop some political analysts from speculating this week that the decision could have the effect of prolonging the Gaza fighting – both by encouraging Hamas to try to replicate a missile strike that had such a psychological (and potentially economic) impact on its adversary and by reinforcing Israel’s determination to hammer away at Gaza until it destroys Hamas’s weaponry and infrastructure.

Some administration critics found political intent in the agency’s order.

On Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas went so far as to accuse the Obama administration of imposing the flight ban to pressure Israel to accept a cease-fire with Hamas – basically a charge that the president was using the federal air safety agency as a political tool.

“The facts suggest that President Obama has just used a federal agency to launch an economic boycott on Israel,” Senator Cruz said in a statement, adding that he planned to use procedures to block Obama administration nominees to the State Department until his questions on the FAA action were answered.

The State Department called the remarks by the tea party favorite – no stranger to provocative comments – “offensive and ridiculous.” Whatever they were, the comments were enough to make questions like “Was the FAA flight ban political?” staples of Thursday morning news channels.

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