July 22, 2014 – The Day Everything Changed

by Brian on August 10, 2014

in In the News,Politics,War in Gaza

Ben-Gurion flight boardJuly 22, 2014. Remember that date. It will be recalled in history books yet to be written as the day the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians changed completely. That’s because it’s the day that the war in Gaza transformed from just another in a series of “operations” to an existential threat to the Jewish State. As a result, any future negotiations towards a two state solution will look very different.

What’s so important about July 22? That’s when the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) put in place a temporary ban on air travel between the U.S. and Israel. Most of Europe quickly followed suit. By day’s end, 160 flights were canceled.

That might seem a minor annoyance. Big deal, a few vacations got canceled and a (not insubstantial) number of tourists were inconvenienced. But an existential threat? Isn’t that a bit dramatic?

But when an international airport is shut down by the crude and navigationally-challenged missiles being fired by Hamas out of Gaza, it is indeed a game changer.

Israel can’t be physically destroyed by those missiles. The Iron Dome has done a spectacular job of keeping nearly every missile from falling in urban areas.

But Israel can be destroyed economically if its link to the outside world is severed. In our globally connected planet, we rely on air travel to move both physical and intellectual goods and services between markets. If the missiles were to continue indefinitely or to become more accurate, that short-lived air travel ban would be transformed into a semi-permanent one, and the Jewish State would not be able to survive.

All those Israeli R&D centers of international hi-tech companies would be shut down, or maybe even worse, their Israeli staff relocated to “safer” locations overseas. Tech conferences and professional meetings between scientists and entrepreneurs would be canceled. Shipments by plane, both commercial and private would stop or, at best, become unreliable and erratic. FedEx: When it absolutely, positively has to get there overnight…or maybe not.

Tourism of course would be decimated, putting tens of thousands of Israelis out of work. “Who would want to fly into an airport that the top aviation authorities say is dangerous?” travel professional Moshe Mizrahi asked David Shamah at The Times of Israel.

The resulting economic implosion would be worse than what the BDS activists have been trying – mostly in vain – to achieve over the past several years. Our enemies will have finally figured out a way to bring us to our knees. Israel would become a true island and emigration – at least among those who have that option, including much of the country’s essential business community – would become rampant.

Yes, but what’s changed? Hamas has had the ability to aim for the airport at any point over the past few years. There are missiles targeting Israel from Lebanon, Syria and Iran too.

But this is the first time the imagined threat has become actualized. Once the FAA stopped the planes, it is no longer possible to hide our heads in the sands and pretend it will never happen. It just did.

This is not the first time planes have stopped flying. During the first Gulf War, when Iraqi Scud missiles were falling on Israel, there was a wide-scale suspension of flights by foreign carriers. But that was a time-limited conflict and, more importantly, the enemy was really trying to halt the U.S. operation, using Israel as the most vulnerable proxy. It’s different this time, knowing there are thousands of missiles in Gaza intended for us specifically.

As I write this, it’s not clear where the war, with its repeated attempts at breached ceasefires and unilateral redeployments, will take us. Even if there is a positive, enforceable outcome, and the threat from Gaza is somehow neutralized, the effect on the peace process will be profound. The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon perhaps said it best. While the world will say that the Gaza fighting demonstrates “why reaching a two state solution is so critical, now more than ever…Israel’s takeaway [will be] that in any possible two-state solution there will need to be a long-term Israeli security presence throughout the West Bank. Not just along the Jordan River, but throughout the West Bank.”

The reason is clear: Ben-Gurion Airport is just 10 kilometers (6 miles) away from the old Green Line. If missiles got into that territory, compared with relatively far away Gaza, they wouldn’t miss the runways and land in Yehud next time.

In some ways, this is nothing new. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long talked about the need for a future Palestinian state to be demilitarized and, in his June 29 speech at the Institute for National Security Studies, emphasized that Israel will have to retain a security presence west of the river as well to ensure that the West Bank doesn’t become the equivalent of, as he put it, 20 Gaza Strips.

What’s different now, writes Keinon, is that while in the past there might have been strong debate within Israel on whether Netanyahu’s approach was overly reactionary, he will now have “more domestic understanding and support for that position.” And while his old/new line “might have been looked upon as obstructionist by many Israelis before the current operation, [it] will appear more reasonable by much of the Israeli public today.” In short: “anyone who thinks that…Israel will return to negotiations with the Palestinians as if nothing has happened is deluding themselves.”

Keinon isn’t the only analyst who’s come to that conclusion. Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz goes further and writes that “Hamas’s decision to fire rockets in the direction of Ben-Gurion Airport may well have ended any real prospect of a two-state solution…Israel will now be more reluctant than ever to give up military control over the West Bank, which is even closer to Ben-Gurion Airport than is Gaza.” And he adds, echoing Keinon (and Netanyahu), that “the Israeli public would never accept a deal that did not include a continued Israeli military presence in the West Bank. They have learned the tragic lesson of Gaza and they will not allow it to be repeated.”

Dershowitz says that Israel is not just fighting for its own safety. “If Hamas is allowed to shut down Israel’s major airport, every terrorist group in the world will begin to target airports…the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine will be but one of many such tragedies…an attack on the safety of Israel’s airport is an attack on the safety of all international aviation.”

One beneficiary of the FAA decision will be El Al, which did not cease its flights for a moment. A year ago, my wife and I flew on Israel’s national carrier to Asia and found it to be quite disappointing: the service, food, entertainment system and even the physical condition of the plane were so far below other carriers that we could have taken to our destination, that I vowed never to fly El Al again. I have now revised that position. (Reports of El Al’s price gouging during the flight ban temper that somewhat.)

The FAA lifted its ban on flights to Ben-Gurion in just 36 hours and most of Europe followed suit in the days to follow, but the sea change in Israeli attitudes will last much longer. When our children ask when did the Israeli-Palestinian conflict become whatever it will morph into in the months and years to come, we will remind them of this date: July 22, 2014.

The article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post’s Friday Magazine.

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