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Trouble for Israel in the Skies Over Turkey?

Turkish charter airlines cut back their weekly flights to and from Israel, and El Al is monitoring Israel's diplomatic crisis with Turkey.
By Chana Ya'ar
First Publish: 9/7/2011, 5:50 PM

Turkish charter airlines have cut back their weekly Istanbul-Tel Aviv flights in the face of the rapidly worsening relations between Ankara and Jerusalem. El Al, meanwhile, is monitoring the situation closely: in addition to a spate of cancellations of flights to Turkey, there are other ramifications involved.

According to a report published by the Hebrew-language Ha'aretz, El Al has developed contingency plans for the possibility that Turkey may not allow Israel's national carrier to fly through its air space.

Such a development would require El Al to reconfigure a number of its routes, including those to the Far East and to the former Soviet Union. This would mean the airline would have to raise its prices due to longer routes that would require more fuel. In addition, the trips themselves would be longer.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told Arutz Sheva on Wednesday that Israel does not pay a fee to fly through Turkish air space, contrary to other media reports. In addition, Palmor said it was unlikely that Turkey would close its air space to Israeli commercial air traffic.

The U.S. has expressed concern over the escalation in tensions between Turkey and Israel over the past several weeks, due to a great extent to Ankara's insistence that Israel apologize for the deaths of nine armed Turkish terror activists who attacked IDF Navy commandos during an attempt in May 2010 by a six-vessel flotilla to breach Israel's blockade of Gaza. All nine were aboard the Turkish IHH-sponsored Mavi Marmara vessel, which carried no humanitarian aid whatsoever. 

The United Nations-commissioned Palmer Report has since confirmed that the flotilla had no legal right to breach Israel's territorial waters, and that Israel's blockade of Gaza is "legal and appropriate." The blockade is intended to prevent terrorists from supplying Gaza's terrorist rulers with weapons and ordnance, which they then use to attack Israel's civilian population.

The last time Turkey downgraded its relations with the Jewish State, Israelis voted with their tourist currency and their consumerism to respond in kind. Despite its diminutive size, in 2008, Israel sent more tourists to Turkey than all but nine other countries in the world. Half a million Israelis visited the country that year, infusing the Turkish economy with tourism dollars.

In 2009, however, Israelis canceled plans for annual vacations to Turkey, and companies canceled their workplace junkets.

Tourism operators were left with empty slots at a time when the world economy had just started its crash, while the Israeli economy was holding steady with domestic tourism firmed up by Turkish ties to Iran.

Some Israeli coffee shops even refused to serve Turkish coffee, to protest the airing of a grossly anti-Israeli scene in a Turkish television show that depicted IDF officers allegedly shooting Arab babies.

El Al resumed its daily flights to Istanbul in April 2010 after a hiatus of several years due to security concerns sparked by that growing relationship and Ankara's parallel belligerence towards Israel. El Al and Turkey's AtlasJet Airlines signed a codeshare agreement at the time, while Turkey's tourism ministry hired a PR firm to resuscitate Israeli visits to the country.

Less than a year later, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan continued to aim vitriol at Israel while tightening ties with Israel's enemies, among them the Hamas terrorist rulers of Gaza. Erdogan announced in January 2011 that his nation “stands by Hamas,” which he called “a resistance movement... a political group,” and insisting “They are people who defend the land.”

Kadima Knesset member Otniel Schneller suggested last year in response to Erdogan's venom that Israelis boycott dried fruit from Turkey, which is imported in large quantities for the minor Jewish holiday of Tu B'Shvat.

Many Israelis also purchase dried fruit with which to recite the Shehechiyanu blessing (gratitude for having "reached this season") during the celebration of the Jewish New Year, Rosh HaShanah, which begins this year at sundown on September 28.