Biden-promised plan to operate Allenby crossing 24/7 faces new hurdle
Airports Authority head says board needs to meet to discuss roll-out of pilot program during election season; transportation minister warns that delay risks hampering ties with US
Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent
Israel’s already-delayed plan to begin operating the border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan 24/7 — as promised to the Biden administration — has hit yet another hurdle.
When US President Joe Biden was in Israel last July, the White House announced that on September 30, Israel would begin the nonstop operation of Allenby — a key component of a package aimed at improving Palestinian livelihood in the absence of a diplomatic initiative for a two-state solution.
But the White House announcement was not made in full coordination with the Transportation Ministry, which along with the Moroccan Foreign Ministry has also been working to get Allenby running at all hours, according to an official familiar with the matter.
The Transportation Ministry subsequently notified the Biden administration that it didn’t have enough staff to begin the full-time operation of Allenby by September 30.
It instead suggested that it roll out a pilot program on October 24, after the end of the Jewish holiday period.
The trial would last several days and test the Airports Authority’s ability to run Allenby full-time, given that it will require hiring additional staff and reassigning employees from other crossings.
The Allenby crossing is currently only open from 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. during the week and 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekends.
Queues can last hours or up to an entire day to cross into Jordan, creating a headache for Palestinians — who have a much more difficult time receiving permits to fly out of Ben Gurion Airport.
As a result, most fly in and out of Amman and then are forced to pay a series of extra fees to get through the border.
US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, who has led the Biden administration’s effort on the issue, toured Allenby last month and announced the new target date for the expanded hours.
Good first meeting today with Minister of Transportation @MeravMichaeli. We discussed shared U.S.-Israeli values and commitments to support diversity and inclusion in society. pic.twitter.com/9trYuqn5Pn
— Ambassador Tom Nides (@USAmbIsrael) December 13, 2021
Earlier this month, however, Airports Authority chairman Yitzhak Gershon penned a hand-written note to Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli in which he took issue with unveiling the plan in the middle of an election season.
Gershon, who was appointed in 2020 by then-transportation minister Miri Regev of the opposition Likud party, called Michaeli’s plan “unacceptable” — adding that he would not allow the politicization of the Airports Authority’s operations.
Due to the holiday period, Michaeli’s office only learned of Gershon’s letter on Tuesday, leaving them with just days to address the matter prior to the October 24 pilot roll-out date, the official familiar with the matter said.
Later on Tuesday, Michaeli sent a response letter to Gershon in which she objected to his position.
In the communique obtained by The Times of Israel, Michaeli noted that the plan to expand Allenby’s operation has been discussed for months — and that both Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz had urged her office to advance the matter.
She said that the Transportation Ministry had been in touch with officials in the Airports Authority who recently notified her that they had completed preparations for the pilot and that they had been the ones to suggest the October 24 roll-out date.
Michaeli said the program has nothing to do with the November 1 Knesset election, given that those slated to benefit from it — Palestinians — are not able to vote.
She warned that further delay of the program could have negative ramifications for Israel’s ties to the US and urged Gershon to advance the matter as quickly as possible.
Speaking to The Times of Israel later Tuesday, Gershon said he was not opposed to expanding the hours at Allenby, but insisted that it must be done the right way.
He said that Michaeli had yet to bring the matter to the Airports Authority’s directorate, which would need to debate and approve the project, including whether it would be appropriate to unveil the pilot program days before an election.
He added that the directorate is supposed to convene anyways on October 24. It will discuss the matter then and if the board approves the plan, the pilot could begin as soon as the next day.
Gershon even speculated that the directorate will likely agree to support Michaeli’s plan, and insisted that his concerns were not politically motivated.
Also weighing in on the matter was Nides, who told The Times of Israel that the plan for Allenby had nothing to do with politics.
“This was an Israeli commitment made to the administration, and I expect that it will be fulfilled,” he said.