With Call for Probe, Saudi Air Defends Ban on Israelis

WASHINGTON -

Saudi Airlines defended Friday its policy of not allowing Israelis onto their planes leaving New York, claiming a week after a New York City sting operation found that the practice was still widely enforced that it did not run afoul of aviation law since the kingdom had no diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

“If there is an absence of political relations between [Saudi Arabia] and any other country, we will not allow that country’s citizens into the kingdom,” Saudi Arabian Airlines general director Khalid al-Melhem told the Al-Watan newspaper.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, whose office conducted the operation, was joined Wednesday in letters to the U.S. Department of Transportation by Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) asking for a probe into whether Saudi Arabian Airlines is violating federal anti-discrimination laws.

“While we find this practice completely reprehensible in any country,” the senators wrote to al-Melhem, “we believe the fact that it is happening here in the United States constitutes a violation of federal law.”

The Jeddah-based airline, which operates 151 flights per week out of New York and Washington, refuses to allow Israeli passport holders to purchase airline tickets, even as a stopover. There are no Jews living in the desert kingdom.

“[Diplomatic relations] also apply to transit passengers,” al-Melhem said. “…In case the plane is delayed, the passenger will have to enter the country, and at that point, it would be very difficult to let him into [Saudi Arabia] if there are no diplomatic relations.”

The airline enforces the ban by asking anyone seeking to purchase a ticket on their website about their citizenship. But while the drop-down menu has an option for “Antarctican” or “North Korean,” no such option exists for “Israeli.”

A member of de Blasio’s staff called the airline pretending to be an Israeli citizen trying to fly from JFK to Mumbai, India, but could not find Israel as an option when asked his citizenship. Calling the airline, he was asked if he had any other passports. Saying he did not, the booking agent went to check with a supervisor.

The answer came soon enough. “Since you have Israeli nationality, you will not be allowed to go on Saudi Airlines,” the agent said.

“No city in the world has closer ties to Israel than we do, and yet Israeli citizens are being discriminated against right here at JFK,” said de Blasio, a former city councilman representing parts of heavily Jewish Boro Park. “It’s not only illegal; it’s an affront to who we are.”

De Basio, who is running for mayor of New York City, vowed to continue “exposing these practices … with authorities in Albany and in Washington until Israeli nationals’ rights are respected.”

The ban on Israelis has existed since 1948, when the state of Israel was established. While it has waned in recent years as Arab countries have signed peace agreements with Israel, it is still enforced in some nations such as Saudi Arabia and Syria.