More than a month after El Al sent a furious letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complaining that Turkey was monopolizing the highly lucrative route between Israel and Turkey by banning Israeli airlines, Jerusalem has done nothing to change the outrageous situation, the airline’s CEO told The Times of Israel. Failure to tackle the issue could prove so costly as to bring down El Al, he said.
Since the Prime Minister’s Office and the Transportation Ministry seem unwilling, for political reasons, to challenge the Turks on their refusal to accommodate Israel’s special security requirements, effectively preventing Israeli airlines from landing in their country, El Al is now pinning its hopes on Avigdor Liberman, Elyezer Shkedy said. Israel’s newly returned foreign minister is known not to shy away from controversial issues and has spoken out frequently in the past against the current government in Ankara.
“What’s happening now between Israel and Turkey is unacceptable,” El Al’s CEO and president Shkedy, a former commander of the Israel Air Force, said in an interview. “This is something I can’t understand, honestly. I can’t understand how the leaders of the State of Israel allow this situation to continue.”
Shkedy refused to estimate how much the crisis was costing El Al, but described it as a financial “disaster” that could bring down the company. The government in Jerusalem would surely not want to see “Israeli aviation crash because of this,” he added, but this scenario is “a real possibility.”
Air traffic between Israel and Turkey has soared by over 150 percent since the 2010 Gaza flotilla episode sent bilateral ties hurtling into the abyss. But only Turkey is benefiting from the increase: The total number of Turkish airline flights out of Ben Gurion Airport each week has reached a staggering 112. The total number of Israeli airline flights on the route: zero.
For reasons Jerusalem blames squarely on Ankara, Israeli airlines have been unable to fly to any destination in Turkey since 2007 and are locked out of the market. As first reported by The Times of Israel, Shkedy on October 22 sent a letter to Netanyahu in which he demanded Israel preclude Turkish airlines from flying to Israel as long as Ankara prevents Israeli airlines from competing, or at least halt the expansion of Turkish companies.
“I am asking you to give clear and unequivocal guidelines to the relevant parties to take steps that will enable Israeli airlines to compete,” Shkedy wrote to the prime minister. “It is essential to require a solution to this problem as a prerequisite for continued flights by Turkish airlines to and from Israel, and to immediately halt any increase in frequencies until a suitable solution can be found.”
Speaking to The Times of Israel in his office at Ben Gurion Airport last week, Shkedy said that Jerusalem’s first step “should be loud and clear: [To tell Ankara that] if you don’t let us fly to Turkey, you are not flying to Israel. It’s as simple as that. Then, if the [government is] not brave enough, then at least do not increase the number of flights from Turkey that can come to Israel.”
Turkish Airlines now operates more flights out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport than any other airline except for El Al. The Turkish state-owned company currently operates no fewer than 53 weekly flights from Tel Aviv to Istanbul. Pegasus Airlines and other Turkish charter companies together offer an additional 59 weekly flights connecting the two countries, bringing the total number of Turkish flights out of Ben Gurion to a staggering 112. This constitutes a 166% increase since 2010, when the total weekly number of Turkish airline flights from Tel Aviv stood at 42.
Israel’s unwillingness to confront Turkey has nothing to do with security or any other practicalities, Shkedy asserted. “It’s a political issue. It’s a big political issue,” he said.
Perhaps now that Israel has a foreign minister again, things will change for the better, he said. Given the delicate nature of bilateral ties — which dramatically deteriorated after the 2010 flotilla incident and were exacerbated even more by Ankara reportedly blowing the cover of Iranian intelligence assets who had secretly been meeting with Mossad handlers in Turkey in early 2012 — fixing the unfair aviation arrangement is not something can be solved on the professional level. Rather, Shkedy insisted, it must be tackled by the country’s political leaders.
“This is not an issue that bureaucrats can take care of,” Shkedy said. “I personally believe that the Civil Aviation Authority officials would like to fulfill their promises to take care of this problem, and do the right thing. But the government told them not to do it.”
The Prime Minister’s Office declined to respond to a Times of Israel query on the matter.
Liberman, who became foreign minister again on November 11 after being acquitted in a breach of trust case, “at least has the courage to say things and to do things that he thinks are right,” Shkedy said.
On March 22 this year, at the personal behest of US President Barack Obama, Netanyahu spoke to his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, apologizing for “operational mistakes” during the flotilla incident, and pledging to compensate the families of those killed. In turn, Erdoğan agreed to restore warm diplomatic ties with Israel, but so far, a genuine détente between the formerly close allies remains elusive.
Liberman has said he considers Netanyahu’s apology to have been a “serious mistake.”
On paper, the status quo — Turkish airlines expanding in Israel while Israeli companies are locked out of the market — has nothing to do with the tense diplomatic atmosphere between Jerusalem and Ankara but is based on Israel’s tight security requirements.
Until 2007, Israeli companies operated about 30 weekly flights to and from Turkey. But starting that year, Turkish authorities ceased accommodating Israel’s security requirements, thus preventing Israeli companies from landing in Turkey. Israel’s security agencies have higher security requirements than other countries’ regarding the operation of flights. Officials in Jerusalem refuse to specify Israel’s security demands on record, but in private conversations say accommodations could certainly be found if there was a desire to do so, and squarely blame Turkish authorities for deliberately making the Israelis’ lives more difficult.
“Everywhere we fly to — China, India, Ukraine, France, Belgium, England — everywhere we found a solution,” El Al’s deputy director for international affairs, Stanley Morais, told The Times of Israel. “There are all these countries that have all these requirements and demands. How come in Turkey we can’t find a solution? It doesn’t make sense.”
Other countries, most recently Russia, have also sometimes objected to Israel’s special security procedures, but a crisis was averted at the last minute with Moscow when Jerusalem threatened to bar Russian planes from landing in Israel, according to Shkedy. “We told them that until they let us fly there, you won’t be able to fly here to Israel,” he said. “They found a solution [on the security arrangements]. A solution that both Russia and Israel were satisfied with.”
Shkedy said he personally likes Turkey very much and that relations between the IAF and its Turkish counterpart used to be excellent. When the owners of El Al called him to offer him the job as the company’s CEO and president in early 2010, he was actually in Turkey, he recalled. “Not with El Al, of course, because El Al can’t fly to Turkey.”