The Israeli government caved in the face of intense pressure by the United States on Sunday, agreeing to open up its skies and allow American airline companies to access its major international airport starting next week.
Suppressed tensions between the two allies rose to the surface earlier Sunday, after the US Department of Transportation filed an official complaint with Israel’s Transportation Ministry, objecting to Jerusalem’s recent policy of allowing only Israeli airlines to operate emergency flights between the two countries.
Representatives from the Israel Airport Authority, National Security Council and Transportation Ministry met on Sunday to discuss Washington’s grievances and to try to defuse the crisis.
“The entrance of 2,000 people a day via the airport will be allowed, and we will approve the inclusion of foreign airlines,” a Transportation Ministry spokesperson told The Media Line of the resolution passed by the government.
The decision to allow foreign carriers to operate flights to and from Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport, which will take effect on February 20, follows weeks of growing friction brewing behind the scenes.
In late January, Israel’s government took the unprecedented step of completely shuttering its major international airport located in the center of the country, banning anyone from entering or leaving the country due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.
The rising number of new infections and the continued spread of the UK and South African variants alarmed decision-makers, who heeded health experts’ advice and ordered the country’s main aerial gateway to the outside world sealed shut.
After several days, the government formed a special intra-ministerial exemptions committee, authorized to review and allow exceptions in only extreme cases – such as medical emergencies or humanitarian concerns. Those wishing to board the rare rescue flights taking off only from New York, Germany and Dubai were asked to appeal to the committee in advance and present a compelling case.
Yet, per the Transportation Ministry’s initial decree, the only carriers authorized to operate these emergency flights were El Al and Israir, Israel’s two major airlines.
Washington’s complaint, lodged Saturday evening, claimed on behalf of United Airlines and Delta Airlines that the order discriminated against American companies and violated the two countries’ bilateral agreements.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu addressed his government’s resolution on Sunday, insisting Israel will “continue to strictly guard its borders – by land, by sea and by air,” while acknowledging it may “be called on to perform some adjustments, specifically in the air.”
Last week, three fully booked flights made the round trip from Ben Gurion airport to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, and several more are expected to take place this week, as thousands of Israelis stranded abroad and thousands of Americans stuck in Israel hope to return home.
According to Article 11 of the 2011 Air Transport Agreement signed between the US and Israel, “Each party shall allow a fair and equal opportunity for the airlines of both parties to compete in providing” air transport, and the two countries “shall allow each airline to determine the frequency and capacity of the international air transportation it offers.”
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The pact also prohibits either side from “unilaterally [limiting] the volume of traffic, frequency or regularity of service, except as may be required for customs, technical, operational or environmental reasons.” This is the clause on which Israel originally staked its refusal.
Instead of allowing 10 or 20 flights a week to leave Israel, which is totally doable, they’re just forcing people to stay here, or fight over extremely expensive tickets
“It’s unconscionable,” Aryeh, an American studying in Jerusalem who has been trying to get back to New York for the past three weeks, told The Media Line. “What’s the reasoning behind it? If El Al can ensure the appropriate health standards and abide by the government’s coronavirus protocols, why can’t Delta or United?”
“Instead of allowing 10 or 20 flights a week to leave Israel, which is totally doable, they’re just forcing people to stay here, or fight over extremely expensive tickets,” he added.
Average ticket prices on last week’s Tel Aviv-New York flights on El Al reached $600.
Hadar, an Israeli staying in Florida, has been trying to book a flight for her 71-year-old mother, who came to visit her.
“Obviously if there were more options, it would’ve been easier,” she told The Media Line.
“I understand [Israel’s] desire to monitor whoever comes in, and we still haven’t gotten the exemption to board a flight anyway, but why should only El Al be allowed to fly. And if that’s what you’ve decided, fine – but you have to offer more flights. Three a week is a joke,” she said.