The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday for the second day in a row warned airlines against flying into Israel’s only international airport due to security concerns. This has one Republican senator demanding answers and promoting a fact-free conspiracy theory that says the Obama administration is using the FAA to launch a unilateral economic boycott of Israel.
A rocket launched from the Gaza Strip on Tuesday landed perilously close to Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. This incident prompted a slew of airlines to announce that they were cancelling flights to Israel until the situation had calmed down some. The FAA soon thereafter announced that it was issuing a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) to U.S.-based airlines, informing them that they were banned from flying into Ben Gurion due to “potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza.” The last time the FAA made such a choice regarding Israel was in 1991, when the country was hit with SCUD missiles fired from Iraq.
That decision was renewed for a further twenty-four hours on Wednesday, and it was here that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) began to become suspicious. Because just prior to the FAA announcement, the Weekly Standard had wondered why the State Department had chosen to issue a travel warning for Americans going to Israel. “Israel earned over $10 billion last year from 3.5 million visitors, the plurality of whom were Americans,” article asked. “Coming at the height of summer tourism season, State’s warning could cost Israel many millions of dollars in lost revenue.
“So why did the State Department issue this warning not when long-range rocket fire was a more serious threat, but only yesterday, days after such fire had decreased sharply, and coinciding with [Secretary of State John Kerry’s] trip to the region?” it continued.
The Weekly Standard’s line of questioning quickly found a fan in Cruz. In a press statement issued on Wednesday, the junior senator from Texas boldly asked “Did President Obama Just Launch an Economic Boycott of Israel?” He went on to list a series of questions that the Obama administration should have to answer, despite the fact that several of them already have been:
- Was this decision a political decision driven by the White House?
- If the FAA’s decision was based on airline safety, why was Israel singled out, when flights are still permitted into Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen?
- What was the FAA’s ‘safety’ analysis that led to prohibiting flights to Israel, while still permitting flights to Ukraine — where a commercial airline flight was just shot down with a BUK missile?
- What specific communications occurred between the FAA and the White House? And the State Department? Why were any such communications necessary, if this was purely about airline safety?
- Was this a safety issue, or was it using a federal regulatory agency to punish Israel to try to force them to comply with Secretary Kerry’s demand that Israel stop their military effort to take out Hamas’s rocket capacity?
Cruz also took offense at the fact that Secretary Kerry’s announcement that the U.S. would be providing an additional $47 million in humanitarian support to the people of Gaza. Providing for the tens of thousands displaced in the fighting, he argued, is in effect providing for Hamas. “In short order, this travel ban was announced by the FAA,” Cruz says, connecting the dots. “Aiding Hamas while simultaneously isolating Israel does two things. One, it helps our enemy. Two, it hurts our ally.”
“Until these serious questions are answered, the facts suggest that 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,” Cruz concluded. “If so, Congress should demand answers.”
The inquiry into Cruz’s questions should be relatively brief, though, as the Obama administration has already categorically denied most of the charges. State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf noted on Tuesday that in 2012, during the last flare-up of tensions between Israel and Hamas, a similar travel warning had been issued to Americans. “So this is a step we have taken when we felt the situation on the ground warranted it,” Harf said. “Obviously, that is a process that we go through that in no way is policy related or politically related. It is just related to how we can best protect American citizens.”
Harf also noted that the State Department wasn’t consulted on the FAA’s decision. As for the flight over Ukraine that ended in a Malaysian airliner being shot down, the FAA — while not banning travel to the country — had issued several warnings, including to avoid flying over Crimea and a general warning about the hazards in the area and the potential for conflicting air traffic control instructions.
When asked about Cruz’s statement at Wednesday’s daily press briefing, Harf was unambiguous in her dismissal. “It’s ridiculous and offensive, quite frankly,” she said. “The FAA takes its responsibilities very seriously. … They make these decisions based solely on the safety and security of American citizens, period. For anyone to suggest otherwise is just ridiculous.”