Sydney – A new partnership between Australia's national airline Qantas and Emirates Airlines is causing turbulence in the company's relations with the Jewish community, prompted by fears for the safety of Jews and Israelis who purchase seats on the "Flying Kangaroo."
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The 10-year deal, announced in September, will mean Dubai will now replace Singapore as the major hub and layover spot for customers flying to and from Europe.
As part of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai prohibits Israeli passport holders from entering its territory. The UAE and Israel do not have formal diplomatic relations.
Dr. Danny Lamm, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, and his chief executive, Peter Wertheim, are scheduled to meet Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce in Sydney on Wednesday amid ongoing concerns about the partnership.
But Australia’s consumer watchdog must first approve the deal, which is expected to take effect in April 2013.
In a letter to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry said it wanted the United Arab Emirates government to make a definitive public statement guaranteeing that anyone traveling via Dubai will not “suffer any adverse consequences whatsoever by reason of having Israeli travel stamps in their passports.”
The council, Australia’s highest Jewish body, said the commission should make its approval of the Qantas-Emirates deal conditional on this guarantee from the UAE government.
Wertheim added, “Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs should also issue a statement confirming that the assurances given by Qantas about the status of Australian travelers in the UAE can be relied on by its customers.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs warns Australians in its travel advisory to “exercise a high degree of caution” if visiting the United Arab Emirates.
Philip Chester, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, told Haaretz he also wanted “official government confirmation” that if a Qantas aircraft is delayed or canceled while in Dubai, passengers with Israeli stamps in their passports can stay at the airport hotel until a new plane can take them home. “I'm still waiting for this,” Chester said.
The ECAJ’s submission was bolstered last week by Shurat HaDin, the Israeli Law Center. Andrew Hamilton, an Australian-born solicitor for Shurat HaDin, cited the case of Cyril Karabus, a 78-year-old South African doctor who was arrested in August while in transit at Dubai airport. He was tried and convicted in absentia a decade ago for the manslaughter of a three-year-old child in 2002. Karabus was released from jail last month but his passport has been confiscated until he faces court on November 20.
“The proposed partnership will create significant consumer risks for persons transiting via and visiting Dubai,” Hamilton wrote.
In their submission, Shurat HaDin cited media reports saying that in 2010 Dubai announced it would deny entry to all Israelis, including dual nationals traveling on a non-Israeli passport.
"This ban has not been withdrawn and appears to still carry the force of law in the UAE," Hamilton wrote.
In a bid to assuage concerns, Qantas executives have been engaging various members of the Jewish community.
In an article published in last week’s Australian Jewish News, Alan Joyce said the airline had set up a special telephone hotline to assist concerned members of the community.
“Passengers do not need to pass through immigration at Dubai to continue onward to Europe,” he wrote. “Israeli passport holders can transit through Dubai.”
Joyce also pointed out that passengers who preferred to avoid Dubai would still be able to fly to Europe on one of the airline’s other partners.
But Melbourne-based travel agent Jo Gostin told Haaretz: “More people are concerned than not. There doesn’t seem to be any clear answer to the question being asked: Is it safe or is it not?"
Gostin, a former federal president of the Women's International Zionist Organization, added, “My advice is I personally would avoid it. I can’t say it’s dangerous and I can’t say it’s not. It’s a serious issue.”
The Qantas-Emirates partnership was also recently raised in federal parliament, with Liberal Senator Helen Kroger arguing that the new deal could affect “the human rights and safekeeping of Australian citizens.”
Citing business executives held in solitary confinement on allegedly trumped-up fraud charges as well as gays who could be in breach of the county’s sodomy laws, Kroger told Parliament, “There are potential issues for Australians of Jewish descent and for Australian Christians who have made pilgrimages to Israel.
“As the UAE is a participant in the Arab League boycott of Israel, concerns exist for any Australians that may have the stamp of Israel in their passport. The same concern applies to dual Australia-Israel citizens who carry an Israeli passport.”
But Angela Lofaro, Qantas executive relations officer, sent a letter last month to “community groups and concerned customers” confirming that Israeli passport holders could transit in Dubai without a visa and that passengers with an Israeli stamp in their passports would be able to enter Dubai.
Nevertheless, Jewish officials still want a guarantee. “A UAE government statement is what we are seeking,” Wertheim said.