In reversal, PM’s office to allow reporters onto Netanyahu’s return flight from US

Correspondents threatened to pull out of trip after initial announcement that they could not have seats on official flight ahead of Yom Kippur and wouldn’t make it home in time

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara speak to the press from the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport on September 3, 2023. (Carrie-Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara speak to the press from the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport on September 3, 2023. (Carrie-Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

The Prime Minister’s Office, backtracking on a previous announcement, has said that reporters will be able to fly back with Benjamin Netanyahu from his trip to the US next week, after journalists threatened to boycott the visit entirely if they were kept off the flight.

Netanyahu is set to depart from New York to Tel Aviv as soon as Shabbat ends on Saturday night, September 23, landing in Israel just before the start of Yom Kippur on Sunday evening.

On Sunday, the diplomatic press corps received a letter from the PMO stating that “because of logistical and security constraints due to the proximity of the start of Yom Kippur to the takeoff for Israel, journalists will not be able to fly back on the prime minister’s plane,” adding that those joining the trip “must take care of return flights themselves.”

In response, Israel’s diplomatic correspondents threatened to boycott the trip.

“On behalf of all the reporters who are slated to fly with the prime minister, I am informing you that so long as we cannot return with you on the prime minister’s plane, we will not register for the trip and will be absent from it,” wrote Yedioth Ahronoth’s Itamar Eichner, head of the diplomatic reporters pool, in a letter to Netanyahu spokesman Topaz Luk and other senior aides.

“It is unreasonable to expect us, the journalists who accompany the trip, to violate Shabbat in order to arrive in Israel before Yom Kippur or, alternatively, to stay in New York on Yom Kippur,” the letter continued.

On Tuesday evening the PM’s office said security checks and logistics for the press pool would be expedited to allow them to join the flight.

The statement specified that journalists would be allowed on the plane with minimal equipment and would be expected to find their own way home from the airport upon their return to Israel.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, 2018 in New York City. (John Moore/Getty Images/AFP)

Netanyahu is scheduled to take off for the US late Sunday night, hours after the end of the Rosh Hashanah holiday. He will hold a series of meetings on Monday in Silicon Valley, including a potential meeting with billionaire CEO Elon Musk. Netanyahu and his delegation will then fly to New York to speak at the United Nations General Assembly and meet with world leaders.

The press corps accompanying senior Israeli officials on trips regularly join them on both flights. The directive to find flights back independently, especially just before the Yom Kippur holiday, was virtually unheard of.

“You are excluding from the delegation anyone who wants to observe Yom Kippur in Israel (as the prime minister, his entourage and professionals want to do) and is not willing to violate Shabbat by flying” on the day of rest, charged the letter.

“Trips by heads of government over the years have been conducted in such a way as to prevent Shabbat desecration. We insist that a solution be found this time as well,” insisted the reporters.

Times of Israel correspondents Lazar Berman and Tal Schneider were among the letter’s signatories.

US Vice President Joe Biden during a press conference at the residence of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not seen, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, March 9, 2010.(Ariel Schalit/AP)

Netanyahu’s speech to the UN was originally scheduled for Thursday afternoon, which would have allowed everyone to return in time for the Jewish Sabbath on Friday night. But Netanyahu’s office asked for the speech to be moved to Friday morning New York time.

Moving the speech to a time that necessitates remaining abroad over the weekend plays into ongoing criticism of Netanyahu’s official travel with his wife, Sara. On various European trips, the couple flew to Rome, London, and Paris late in the week, and stayed in five-star hotels over Shabbat on the taxpayers’ dime. The PMO insisted that his Thursday evening and Friday morning meetings with European leaders were scheduled based on the needs of their hosts.

For Netanyahu, the trip to the US will be his first since taking office again in December as the head of a hard-right government. US President Joe Biden has resisted inviting him to the White House and will only meet him on the sidelines of the General Assembly.

The White House has repeatedly expressed disapproval of statements and policies emanating from members of Netanyahu’s hardline government, as well as its judicial overhaul plan which has roiled the country.

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