WASHINGTON — The most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington has come out against a Federal Aviation Administration ban on U.S. airlines flying to Israel after a rocket landed near Ben Gurion International Airport, saying that the ban "sends the entirely wrong message."
In a statement released on Wednesday, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee acknowledges that the FAA must protect air travelers' safety but says it is "concerned" by the FAA's decision to ban flights to Israel.
"Air travel to Israel has been safe and unhindered," the statement reads in part. "Safety is an important consideration, but this decision appears overly harsh and excessive. Moreover, we are concerned that it could have the unintended effect of encouraging terrorists to become even more committed to make civil aviation a target."
"Hamas terrorists are seeking to inflict human, physical and economic damage on our ally. That is why we are concerned the ban could have the effect of isolating Israel at a time when we should be demonstrating our strong solidarity," the statement continues. "America should be strengthening our connection with Israel through additional assistance to its self-defense efforts, enhanced economic cooperation and increased numbers of Americans traveling to the Jewish state. The American people have shown in this difficult moment that they stand strongly with our democratic ally. Now is not the time to send the entirely wrong message with a ban on flights to Israel. We urge a review of the policy immediately."
Conservatives in the United States have criticized U.S. government warnings about traveling to Israel during the current conflict. The Weekly Standard argued that "Obama administration is using the travel warning to exert pressure on Israel to agree to a ceasefire" after the State Department put out a travel advisory warning U.S. citizens about the dangers of traveling to Israel and the Palestinian territories right now. Sen. Ted Cruz alleged that, via the FAA ban on flights to Tel Aviv, the Obama administration "has just used a federal regulatory agency to launch an economic boycott on Israel, in order to try to force our ally to comply with his foreign-policy demands" in a statement on Wednesday.
One Democratic congressional staffer argued that AIPAC's position mirroring Cruz's and other Republicans' on the ban could hurt the lobby group's sway among Democrats in Congress.
"This seems like they're joining the crazies in crazyland," the aide said. "To suggest that that there was anything other than safety was the reason for FAA's decision, indulges in the worst sort of conspiracies about this president. "
"I assume statements like this are meant to appease their growing right-wing flank, but, regardless of the reason, it certainly cost them credibility with Democrats on Capitol Hill," the aide said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised the issue of the flight ban in a phone call with Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday. The State Department said in a statement, "The FAA's notice was issued to protect American citizens and American carriers. The only consideration in issuing the notice was the safety and security of our citizens."