Although the U.S. has now lifted the flight ban on Israel’s Ben Gurion airport (as of this morning, 24 July), the die has been cast. Hamas succeeded in getting the airport closed. Doing that put Israel’s economy in jeopardy for a period that – for all Israel knew two days ago – would be indefinite.
The principle that Hamas can do that at any time is incompatible with security for Israel. In terms of what Israel must do to prevent a recurrence of this dynamic, it doesn’t matter that the ban has been lifted. If it can happen again, Israel is not secure.
That means, in case it’s not clear, that the status quo ante has been irretrievably breached. It can’t be restored now. There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.
Nor is there any use in pretending that Hamas breached the status quo. Hamas is a terrorist organization that subsists within a status quo maintained by others. The breacher of the status quo was the United States.
The U.S. could have issued a warning about the Hamas rocket that caused an impact near Ben Gurion airport (it hasn’t been made clear what actually struck in the nearby neighborhood; reports suggest that Iron Dome intercepted the rocket and that what fell was shrapnel from an in-air detonation). That would have been a proportional aviation-safety response. Instead, the Obama administration banned U.S. flights to the airport.
Contrast this with the situation in Syria where a heavily-armed civil war is raging. The Obama administration’s FAA has not banned U.S. flights to Syria. It has issued special notices suggesting that U.S. airmen “should avoid” flying there, and requiring that U.S. carriers and pilots, if they do fly there, get pre-flight threat briefings, and notify the FAA of their intent to operate in those nations’ air space.
In Iraq, where a civil war also rages, the FAA has placed restrictions on U.S. civil air operations in the country, but their effect is not to prohibit overflight or landing operations in most of Iraq. Operators must observe a “hard deck” of 20,000 feet and must obtain prior authorization to conduct flights (as opposed to merely notifying the FAA).
For Somalia, Yemen, and the Sinai Peninsula, the FAA says airmen “should avoid” the air space, and imposes a hard deck of 24,000 feet and requires the pre-flight threat briefings and prior notification.
Note in all these instances that the U.S. government goes to great lengths to make flights possible, if Americans deem them necessary, rather than taking the much simpler policy stance that air operations are prohibited outright.
As mentioned in my previous post, meanwhile, the FAA hasn’t imposed even these kinds of restrictions on Pakistan, where there have been several armed attacks on airports and even on a commercial aircraft at an airport. That situation is the most closely analogous to Israel’s with Hamas.
Yet the outright ban on U.S.-operated flights to Israel was more like the FAA’s ban on overflight of Ukraine (specifically, the Simferopol and Dnepropetrovsk flight information regions) – but without the clear justification for such a ban. In eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian rebels have actually shot down aircraft, including Malaysian Air flight MH17.
Cruz v. State
Senator Ted Cruz noticed the inconsistency and disproportionality (to use Caroline Glick’s word) of the ban issued against Israel, and demanded an explanation from the Obama administration. He suggested that the disproportionate reaction amounted to a strong-arm tactic against Israel:
The FAA announcement drew immediate criticism from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who said in statement, “President Obama has just used a federal regulatory agency to launch an economic boycott on Israel, in order to try to force our ally to comply with his foreign-policy demands.”
The State Department angrily disputed that characterization on Wednesday:
“It’s ridiculous and offensive, quite frankly,” [spokeswoman Marie] Harf said. “The FAA takes its responsibilities very seriously. I will speak for them in that case. They make these decisions based solely on the security and safety of American citizens, period.”
Interestingly, Harf was less willing to speak for the FAA on Tuesday, when she disavowed all State Department involvement in imposing the FAA ban:
“On the FAA, we to my knowledge were not involved in that decision-making. Obviously, we knew it was coming today. I was actually waiting for the announcement to come out before I came out to brief so I had more information. But the FAA makes these decisions when they feel it’s warranted, again for the safety of United States citizens. …”
Harf said it was “not true” that the White House was out of the loop on the FAA decision while the State Department had the head’s up.
“I was on many e-mail chains this morning about when the statement would actually come out that included my White House colleagues,” she said. “There’s not coordination — the FAA makes decisions on its own from a policy perspective. We all — we knew — you know, I knew a little bit before the briefing, as did the White House, that this was being announced publicly on the communications side. But from a policy perspective, this is a process driven entirely by the FAA.”
This is, of course, ridiculous. The executive agencies of the U.S. federal government all report ultimately to the president. There is no such thing as those agencies being the sole drivers of politically freighted decisions about foreign policy. If the competing theories are that an FAA director grossly exceeded his authority to make a policy move that was wildly out of sync with previous FAA policy, or that the Obama administration made a political move disguised as an aviation safety action, we have to conclude, with Ted Cruz, that the latter theory fits all the facts and patterns best.
That it was a foolish tactic has been shown by the lifting of the FAA ban today – in spite of the fact that nothing has changed since Tuesday morning. Hamas is still pounding Israel with the same intensity of rocket fire, and Israel is continuing systematic attacks on the Hamas infrastructure in Gaza. In such a completely unchanged context, merely lifting the ban after two days comes off quite clearly as acknowledging that it was, at best, unnecessary.
Here we go…
Again, however, the precedent has been set. Hamas was able to wag the dog. Israel can’t live with that. The showdown that crushes Hamas didn’t have to happen now, but the Obama administration has made sure that it will.
They won’t be getting much sleep in the halls of government in Jerusalem in the next few weeks. There’s now no postponing the reckoning that outlines a new idea for the follow-on status quo. Heads in Egypt and Jordan (and, frankly, in Lebanon) are cooler than heads in Obama’s Washington, D.C., so we have that going for us. Bibi will try to find an even keel to stay on, if his past performance is anything to go by. He’ll continue to look for an interim solution, rather than going for what would certainly be an ill-timed final-status push of some kind. He knows that keeping Egypt and Jordan onboard depends on his not going for too much.
But Hamas and Fatah are continuing to push all their usual buttons, and the whole region is in uproar. If you haven’t put your seatbelt on yet, I recommend you do that now.