A former State Department official who negotiated “open skies” agreements in President Bill Clinton’s administration is now attacking precisely such a deal negotiated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s appointees — a tentative pact with Saudi Arabia.
Allan Mendelsohn, a Washington lawyer who practices transportation law, is waging what appears to be a one-man campaign against the U.S.-Saudi Arabia Open Skies Agreement, a deal initialed in April but not yet signed. In an echo of the controversy that erupted two months ago over business deals between U.S. carriers and Saudi Arabian Airlines, the lawyer bases his objections on allegations that the kingdom continues to discriminate against Jewish travelers and those whose passports include an Israeli visa stamp.
“If some nation had a visa policy that didn’t allow black Americans to enter the country, I can guarantee you that there wouldn’t be an open-skies agreement,” Mendelsohn told The Jewish Week, a point he also made in a June 23 letter to Secretary of State Clinton. “Once the State Department appreciates that visa policies can be very discriminatory, they’ll give the matter reconsideration.”
Since Mendelsohn seems to be a lone voice on the matter, without public support from any organization or public figure, it might be easy to dismiss his efforts as those of a gadfly. But it’s also tough to ignore the lawyer’s credentials, which include a two-year stint as deputy assistant secretary of state for transportation affairs. A political appointee, Mendelsohn held the position in 2000 and 2001, working under Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and left after Republicans captured the White House. Indeed, one official who has responded to his letters in the past few months, Krishna R. Urs, now holds his former title.
The open-skies policy, a concept created by the United States, is designed to liberalize the rules and regulations of commercial aviation, minimizing government intervention over routes, the number of flights, ports of entry and other matters. Since 1992, when the United States signed its first open-skies accord with the Netherlands, U.S. negotiators have reached bilateral deals with more than 100 partners, including several Arab countries.
Mendelsohn acknowledged that some of those partners have “horrible” records on human rights, but what distinguishes Saudi Arabia, he said, is the possibility that it discriminates against a group of American citizens, those who happen to be Jewish.
Driven by that concern, Mendelsohn has written to the secretary of state on three occasions, beginning March 6. His first letter called for the State Department to make “a careful and official investigation” into Saudi policies regarding American Jews who may wish to enter the kingdom “but cannot do so unless they lie on their visa applications.”
The lawyer has yet to hear from Clinton, but he has received responses from Urs and from Jose W. Fernandez, assistant secretary of state for economic, energy and business affairs. Fernandez wrote that State Department officials “have no verified information to indicate that U.S. citizens are currently denied entry based on religious background.” He also noted reports that U.S. citizens had been denied visas “because their passports reflected travel to Israel or indicated that they were born in Israel,” but added that the situation “seems to have improved and reportedly has not happened recently.”
For his part, Urs wrote that State Department officials “negotiate Open Skies agreements independently of other bilateral issues” and, in fact, consider a country’s visa policy “outside the scope of an air transport agreement.”
The Saudis, too, have denied any current policy of discrimination. Responding in June to questions stemming from the airline controversy, the Saudi Embassy in Washington said its government “does not deny visas to U.S. citizens based on their religion,” nor does it bar entry to those whose passports bear Israeli visa stamps.
Replying to Fernandez, Mendelsohn wrote of his recent conversation with “an experienced newspaper correspondent” who said “he was compelled to … lie on his visa application,” stating that he was Christian rather than Jewish.
More to the point, Mendelsohn wrote in a May 11 letter to Clinton that even if the State Department had its doubts about the existence of Saudi prohibitions, it could remedy the dilemma by insisting on a “written side agreement” to the larger deal. The side agreement would state that Saudi Arabia doesn’t discriminate against American Jews, nor will discriminate in the future, Mendelsohn suggested.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Mendelsohn said side agreements aren’t an integral part of the open-skies accord, which follows a particular format in each case, but are also fairly common. “And there’s no reason the State Department can’t require a side agreement,” he added, “when it well knows that the Saudis have maintained these [discriminatory] policies in the past.”
Open-skies accords are executive agreements, not treaties, and, therefore, don’t have to be ratified by the Senate, said Mendelsohn, 79, who works for the law firm of Cozen O’Connor and teaches international transportation law at Georgetown University. An agreement that has been initialed, but not yet signed, means that both sides “can go home and make sure it’s acceptable under their respective laws” before finalizing the deal, he explained.
Mendelsohn’s frustration with the State Department’s responses recently led the lawyer to contact an acquaintance who works for U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader. But Cantor’s office has had nothing to say about the issue, and several messages left with the aide went unreturned. The lawyer’s efforts came to the attention of The Jewish Week through Washington attorney Jeffrey Lovitky, a friend of Mendelsohn who protested Delta Air Lines’ deal with the official Saudi carrier.
A list of questions submitted to the State Department by The Jewish Week drew only a short response directing a reporter to two pages on the department’s website — an April 18 “Memorandum of Consultations” between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and travel information related to Saudi Arabia.
The questions — none of them answered — asked, among other things, whether the State Department has sought assurances from the Saudi government that it doesn’t or won’t discriminate against American Jews and how the department views Mendelsohn’s suggestion that it pursue a side agreement. The list also included such basic queries as when officials expected to sign an open-skies accord.
A travel industry analyst, however, defended open-skies agreements, in general, and suggested that even the one with Saudi Arabia may hold the promise of change.
“If Saudi Arabia’s willing to do this, maybe it’s the first chink in opening up to more tourism and visitors,” said Henry Harteveldt of the Forrester Group, an independent research organization. “You can’t say that ‘open skies’ leads to greater personal freedom, but maybe it will lead to more cultural interaction, which, in turn, could loosen things up.”
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League said this week that his organization is studying the open-skies agreement, but hasn’t taken a position on it. In June, the ADL contacted Delta and other U.S. carriers, asking them to ensure that their own companies don’t become a party to another country’s discriminatory practices.
Mendelsohn offered a theory about why the State Department may be reluctant to drop the deal with Saudi Arabia or to seek a side agreement, saying that to do so would set a precedent. American diplomats would have to do the same with every other Arab country that has practiced discrimination in the past, he said.
Whatever the case, Mendelsohn continued, he knows how he’d react if he were still in the State Department and if South Africa remained an apartheid country, refusing entry to black Americans. “I wouldn’t sign an agreement with them.”