How Ben Gurion Airport Changes the Entire Gaza War

As airlines canceled flights to Israel for a second day and the FAA extended its ban, experts say that a short-term flight ban won't hurt Israel's economy, so long as it stays short-term.

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As airlines canceled flights to Israel for a second day and the FAA extended its ban, experts say that a short-term flight ban won't hurt Israel's economy, so long as it stays short-term.

As we noted yesterday, flights were suspended after the pilot of Delta flight en route to Ben Gurion Airport diverted the plane due to reports that shrapnel from a Gaza-fired rocket landed just a mile away from the airport. Delta announced it would suspend all flights to Israel, triggering a de facto international flight ban and a 24-hour F.A.A. prohibition on flights to Israel.

Just moments ago, that ban was extended into a second day. From Reuters:

"Today ... we are not flying to Israel," Delta CEO Richard Anderson said in an interview with CNBC.

Israeli officials and the diaspora of pro-Israel supporters protested the ban, characterizing it as an overreach and, in the words of one Israeli minister, "a prize" for terrorism. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg protested the F.A.A. ban by hopping a flight to Tel Aviv on El Al, Israel's national airline, which has continued flying amidst the kerfuffle.

This evening I will be flying on El Al to Tel Aviv to show solidarity with the Israeli people and to demonstrate that it is safe to fly in and out of Israel. Ben Gurion is the best protected airport in the world and El Al flights have been regularly flying in and out of it safely."

Israel, for its part, is lobbying aggressively to change the minds of decision makers. As Israeli spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on MSNBC last night:

Our airport is safe. Our airport is secure. And we hope the American carriers will be flying to Israel soon." 

The biggest issue at play, beyond the obvious question of safety (especially in the wake of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17), is the impact that the flight bans could have on the Israeli economy. The Wire spoke with Robert Danin, the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Niv Elis, a business reporter for the Jerusalem Post, about the meaning and the impact of the ban.

Israel's Link to the World

You might have heard that Israel does not enjoy the rosiest of relations with its neighbors. Despite peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, the borders between Israel and the region are notoriously fraught with tension and mistrust.

To the north is Lebanon, the southern part of which is occupied by Hezbollah, with whom Israel fought a war in 2006. Also, to the north is Syria, which has fought three wars with Israel and never established diplomatic ties over 66 years. You get the picture.

Ben Gurion Airport, as a symbol, represents Israel's gateway to the rest of the world, where it participates in business and diplomacy like most any other nation. Place in peril the facility that services 90 percent of the country's incoming and outgoing passengers from Europe, the United States, Asia, and myriad places where the country maintains ties for its prosperity and you've got a problem.

The country already feels under siege," Danin told The Wire. "Now with this new dimension added, people can't get out or in."

If Short Term Becomes Long Term

With few commercial planes flying into and out of Israel right now, even if business is only paused temporarily, the crisis has other upshots.

In the short term, the effect is probably marginal," Danin told The Wire. "But the psychological effect is quite profound. Israel is a very small country that relies mostly on aviation for its economy. The impact on the Israeli psyche is quite important."

Elis says that if things return to normal quickly, the effect will be minimal. If they don't, however, he pointed to two major facets of Israeli life that the flight ban would impact. An obvious first one is tourism.

"Tourism is really secondary to the security situation," he said. "It's not like Egypt, which is heavily dependent on tourism. But it's still one or two percent of the GDP, which is something you don't want halved."

He added that 30 percent of next month's tours to Israel have already been canceled in the wake of the violence. The big one, Elis added, was the perception of Israel in the business world. 

If businesses feel like Israel is a dangerous place, that's a really big deal and an unfavorable outcome. But a 24-hour ban won't lodge that image."

Danin agreed:

If it's longer than 24 hours, it could have a real effect on the economy and Israel's confidence."

Ben Gurion Airport Is Still Open for Business

Elis also drew focus on the optics of the cancellations, which for now, he called the "most significant" aspect of the whole ordeal. The greater violence has only produced a handful of civilians deaths and injuries in Israel, which boasts an effective missile defense system and has shelters and security infrastructure in place.

For now, Elis explained, Israeli exports are shipping out, the currency is stable, and the ports are working. "All these things have been doing relatively well."

Unlike a few airport strikes, which shut down Ben Gurion entirely earlier this year and is a pretty normal occurrence in most countries, the airport hasn't closed, despite the ban.

What This Means for a Possible Ceasefire

For Israel, Ben Gurion Airport was never meant to be part of the Gaza equation. In the past, Israelis have advocated against a withdrawal from the West Bank precisely because it could potentially place the airport within rocket range.

But over the past few weeks, as Hamas has fired off missiles with a longer range than ever before, five million Israelis including those living in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other communities in Israel's center and north have been placed in the crosshairs.

The country's vaunted Iron Dome, with its 90 percent success rate, may have kept civilian casualties in heavily populated areas low, but it only took one rocket to disrupt almost all international flights to Israel.

So does this mean Israel will more aggressively pursue a ceasefire? Or more aggressively pursue its operation to disable Hamas?

With John Kerry arriving in Israel on Wednesday and new ceasefire proposals being drafted, we'll certainly find out .

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.