With the Airlines Back Flying, Netanyahu Praises Himself

Israeli diplomats assuaged the concerns of the Americans and others, but Bibi is thinking more about internal party politics.

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U.S. President Barack Obama walks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he views an Iron Dome defense battery at Ben-Gurion International Airport Airport, Israel, March 20, 2013.Credit: Reuters

Every soldier in an anti-aircraft unit dreams of downing a plane, but few manage to shut down an entire airport, and of all things by a decision to hold fire. But’s that what happened last week to an air force officer in an Iron Dome battery; the events led to the suspension of flights at Ben-Gurion International Airport.

Within hours a whole mythology developed around the affair, replete with political context. The truth is much more ordinary; all we can learn is what happens when similar rigid organizational cultures intersect — the air force (including air defense) and civil aviation. Then politicians are quick to announce that they are your captain speaking.

Hamas rockets and Iron Dome have led to a three-pronged risk to planes at Israel’s only international airport: a rocket hitting a plane in flight, a strike by an Iron Dome intercept missile, or shrapnel following a successful intercept. According to the Israel Air Force, the risk of a rocket hitting a plane taking off or landing is one in 100 million, and the risk of a rocket from Gaza hitting a plane in Israel’s entire airspace is one in a billion. “Less than the risk of choking on a prune,” one Israeli pilot promised an American colleague.

Over the past two years, the Civil Aviation Authority and the IAF, which operates Iron Dome, Arrow and Patriot antimissile systems and soon Magic Wand as well, have instituted a protocol. The air force, which has learned over the years to live with skies filled with civilian aircraft, birds and missiles, is getting used to the new exigency of planes taking off and landing in air corridors immune to rocket intercepts.

Iron Dome is able to intercept nine out of 10 rockets with a single missile each. Simple arithmetic shows that two missiles fired simultaneously at one rocket will strike it with 99 percent certainty. Due to considerations of cost and supply, the firing of two missiles at once is saved for defending particularly important assets, including Ben-Gurion Airport and greater Tel Aviv's million residents, including those in Yehud, where a rocket fell last week.

If the IAF had decided to intercept the rocket at Yehud, the officer in charge of the battery (a lieutenant, captain or major, because there’s still no national center for coordinating intercepts and every battery independently implements IAF policy) would have had enough time, three and a half minutes according to the information Israel has disseminated worldwide. It turns out the alternative was chosen because it was considered less dangerous than an intercept near the airport.

The strike, about a mile from the airport’s perimeter fence, induced a strict reading of the American protocol, which, as it were, shot down the Israeli protocol and turned Ben-Gurion Airport into a no-fly zone. The IAF came to its senses and changed the way it operates.

Luckily for Israel, the director – and some say, the rehabilitator – of the Civil Aviation Authority over the past six years has been Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Romm. He has made it more professional and established strong ties with aviation officials around the world.

Thanks to Romm’s letter that calmed the situation, the director of security and safety at British Airways, Tim Steeds, recommended that the company’s flights not be suspended, and the American Federal Aviation Administration’s director of System Operations Security, Frank Hatfield, was persuaded to support a resumption of flights. The Foreign Ministry’s director general, Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, helped convince an official at Turkish Airways to fly Israelis stranded in Turkey to Athens.

None of this is known to Israelis, whose main source of information is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At the cabinet meeting, when the planes had returned, Netanyahu ignored the people who managed the crisis and praised himself and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz. Thus a myth was born, for the benefit of politics. Netanyahu was angry at Katz during the crisis but needs him in the internal Likud struggle against Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar.

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