When Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior was removed from a U.S. commercial plane last week by the pilot for posing a "security risk," it raised anew the enforcement of airline safety after Sept. 11.
The Aug. 8 incident marked the third time in recent months that a high-ranking Israeli delegation was barred from a flight because a pilot deemed them a security risk.
"This singling out of Israeli diplomats … and removing them from a plane in such a manner, and the very fact that we as Israelis [are deemed] to pose a security risk, is intolerable," Rabbi Melchior reportedly told Israel Radio after being taken off a Comair flight from Cincinnati to Toronto.
A Comair spokesman told The Jewish Week that the issue was not Rabbi Melchior’s nationality but the "security risk" caused by the failure of his armed guards to file the paperwork required by federal regulations to carry weapons on board.
"The paperwork was not in place, so we had to delay and re-accommodate the deputy foreign minister and his entourage until that was taken care of," said the spokesman, Nick Miller.
An Israeli Embassy spokesman in Washington said Israeli and State Department officials met Monday to discuss the incident. Mark Regev declined to provide details or say whether a resolution was reached.
Regev called the recent incidents involving Israeli officials "glitches that happen from time to time." He noted that Israeli officials fly all over the U.S. without problems.
"I don’t think there is any campaign to deliberately target Israelis or Israeli officials. It would be absurd to say there is," he said. "We’re not talking about a systematic problem or bureaucratic problem."
Regev refused to confirm that the bodyguards carry weapons.
"All security personnel who accompany Israelis in America operate fully under relevant American legal provisions," he said.
"Israelis better than anyone else know the need for airline security," Regev said, before adding, "I think it’s strange that someone could perceive the deputy foreign minister of Israel as being a security risk."
Besides Rabbi Melchior, the other incidents involved Alon Pinkas, Israel’s consul general in New York, and a bodyguard of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
In early July, a National Airlines captain barred Pinkas and his wife, Revital, from boarding a return flight from San Francisco, reportedly deciding he was a security risk as a potential target.
Regev blamed the incidents on "heightened airline security, new procedures, new paperwork." But federal aviation officials said the requirements for filing paperwork to carry guns on board have been in force "for decades."
"To the best of my knowledge it has not changed since 9-11," said an FAA spokesman. "I’m not aware of any new arrangements for diplomats that would be any different."
A spokesman for the new federal Transportation Security Administration confirmed the FAA’s account.
A spokesman for the Airline Pilots Association, John Mazur, said "the issue of firearms on commercial airliners has been a bit of a sore point over the years, both for the sometimes questionable necessity [of carrying them onto a flight], but even before 9-11 because of existing concerns about the possibility of someone counterfeiting an ID."
The spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, created in response to Sept. 11, said the agency does not compile statistics on incidents of passengers trying to get on board with a firearm without the proper paperwork. He said individual airlines must monitor these events.
Ido Aharoni, a spokesman for the consul general’s office in New York, said a formal complaint was filed with the State Department in the three cases involving Israeli officials.
"In each case a decision was made on the ground by a pilot to bar entry to the official, and that is, in all three cases, against the rules," Aharoni said.
But State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said Monday that his agency has not formally heard from the Israelis about the Cincinnati incident.
Rabbi Melchior said he sat on the plane at Cincinnati International Airport for more than an hour before the pilot evacuated the aircraft, saying there was a security risk. The 52-year-old bearded and bespectacled rabbi was forbidden to re-enter.
"The security officials and the company all put pressure on him, and there were negotiations," Rabbi Melchior told Israel Radio. "But the pilot is sovereign on his aircraft, and he is empowered to make such a decision, and he did it in spite of all the pressure from the company and security officials."
About a half hour after the incident, Rabbi Melchior flew on another plane from Comair, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta Airlines.
In an interview with the Israeli paper Yediot Achronot published Sunday, Pinkas called the Melchior incident "absurd."
"Tomorrow there will be another pilot that will say he’s not willing to fly the foreign minister," Pinkas said. "The common denominator here is that every pilot does whatever he wants. We need to put an end to this."
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, suggested that the FAA needs to adopt clearer guidelines for diplomats requiring armed protection because pilots now have "tremendous leeway to act."
"On one hand it’s fine because they need to have the ability to act quickly to protect their safety and the safety of passengers," he said.
But, Foxman said, "By giving carte blanche [to the pilots], it seems to have impacted disproportionately on people who need protection: Israeli diplomats. If we find out the only diplomats who are traveling with armed guards are Israelis, then one needs to make some accommodations for them. Certainly the answer is not to move them off the plane."
In an Aug. 12 letter to FAA administrator Jane Garvey, Foxman said he is concerned about the recent incidents involving Israeli officials.
"If, in fact, these passengers were removed because they posed a risk as terrorist targets, removing them from flights only serves to punish a class of individuals because they are the objects of hate by terrorist groups," the letter said.
While also stressing "strong support of the Administration’s efforts to strengthen airline security" he urged Garvey to "conduct a thorough review of these cases."
- Israel radio
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Deputy Foreign Minister
- Israeli embassy
- Michael Melchior
- Alon Pinkas
- Federal Aviation Administration
- Abraham Foxman
- Mark Regev
- New York
- Israel News
- Shimon Peres
- Staff Writer
- Foreign Minister
- Department of State
- Nick Miller