Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly ordered the closing of Israeli airspace to flights heading to and from Jordan in retaliation for Amman’s delaying of a plane slated to shuttle the premier to the United Arab Emirates last week.
The order was passed along from the Prime Minister’s Office through the Transportation Ministry to the Civil Aviation Authority in an email on Thursday afternoon, just 45 minutes before it was slated to come in place.
Netanyahu made the decision unilaterally without consulting the cabinet or aviation officials, who panicked upon receiving the order, recognizing its major international implications, Maariv reported.
Barring Jordan-bound planes from using Israeli airspace would have been a violation of the peace deal Israel struck with Jordan in 1994. The directive would also have violated the aviation deals Israel has reached with countless other countries, including the United States, which use Israeli airspace for flights landing in Jordan or ones that use Israeli and Jordanian airspace to reach other destinations in the region.
Upon receiving the email, Civil Aviation Authority director Joel Feldschuh sought to stall its implementation by flooding the Prime Minister’s Office with queries regarding how to implement the sweeping directive, Maariv reported. Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman responded that he would look into the matter and get back to Feldschuh.
Minutes later, Braverman returned to the CAA director, saying that Netanyahu indeed wanted to move ahead with the directive, which was slated to come into effect at 1:00 p.m.
However, the premier evidently had a change of heart minutes before the deadline and decided to retract the directive, Maariv reported, citing several senior officials involved in the incident.
“It was really down to the wire,” one senior official told the Hebrew daily. “You have no idea what kind of international damage would have been done to Israel if this directive had been implemented on the ground.”
The PMO declined to respond to the report, which was confirmed by several other outlets.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a Netanyahu rival, blasted the premier over the report, saying his actions were “detrimental to Israel’s national security.”
“Netanyahu is driven by personal, political motivations and his actions run counter to Israel’s diplomatic agreements,” Gantz tweeted. “This just shows that he has entirely lost his ability to exercise good judgement and is doing everything to look out for himself instead of for the country.”
Netanyahu was slated to make the first official visit by an Israeli leader to the United Arab Emirates, half a year after the countries established formal relations. He had hoped to use the audience with the UAE’s crown prince to boost his reelection campaign less than two weeks before the March 23 Knesset elections.
The Prime Minister’s Office said it had difficulties coordinating the flight to the UAE over Jordanian airspace after Jordan’s Crown Prince Hussein canceled a visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a sensitive holy site under Jordanian custodianship, due to disagreements over security arrangements.
Rather than taking an Israeli jet, Netanyahu had arranged for an Emirati plane to shuttle him to the UAE — apparently due to security reasons. That airliner had been docking at Jordan’s airport in Amman on Thursday, waiting for a go-ahead from local authorities before taking off to Israel to pick up Netanyahu. Jordan held up the approval for several hours before eventually giving a green light later on Thursday. However, by the time Netanyahu was cleared to fly, it was already too late and the PMO decided to cancel the trip, due to time constraints.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi confirmed on Friday that Jordan held up granting Netanyahu overflight permission in retaliation for the prince’s canceled visit to Jerusalem. Safadi accused Israel of violating an agreement on the arrangements for the visit, while Israel has said Hussein arrived with heavier security than promised.
On Saturday, Netanyahu insisted that relations between the two countries were positive, saying that “Jordan needs good relations with us no less than we need good relations with Jordan.”
The diplomatic spat underscored Jordanian frustrations with Netanyahu and tensions between the two neighbors that have simmered for years.
Netanyahu had been scheduled to meet UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed in his visit to the Emirates.
Reports had also suggested he may have also been hoping to meet Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and/or Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok during the trip.
The trip to the UAE been planned for several months, but postponed on numerous occasions, most recently in February. Netanyahu had originally been set to make the trip in November, then December, and then in January and February, but the pandemic, scheduling issues, and internal political crises led to repeated delays.