The first foreign trip of President Trump included a much commented upon direct flight from Riyadh to Tel Aviv, something otherwise not permitted.
Why’s that? Because many Muslim countries place restrictions on Israeli travel.
Israel is routinely banned at the border, so routine that it is literally unremarkable. Governments never raise it.
Activists never protest it. Journalists rarely report on it. Unless something challenges it, like the flight of Air Force One from Riyadh to Tel Aviv.
What are the restrictions? Sixteen Muslim countries – Algeria, Bangladesh, Brunei, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen – simply forbid Israeli passport holders entry. Period.
This restriction was so strictly enforced that there was a time when Israeli Muslims who wanted to make the pilgrimage to Mecca had to get Jordanian passports for the Hajj.
There are eight countries – Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen – that forbid entry to anyone whose passport has evidence of being in Israel.
For years, Israel permitted foreign nationals to ask that their passports not be stamped to get around this prohibition. More recently, Israel stopped stamping foreign passports altogether.
Foreigners have to be careful to avoid any sign of Israeli-contamination; even exit stamps at the Egyptian or Jordanian land borders with Israel can be grounds for denied entry.
Then there are many Muslim countries who forbid El Al, the Israeli national carrier, to use their airspace. That applies even to the Israeli prime ministerial plane, which means that he flies rather circuitous routes around the world.
Just months ago, the Israeli prime minister’s flight from Australia to Singapore took an additional three hours because El Al cannot fly through Indonesian airspace.
So when Air Force One flew directly from Saudi Arabia to Israel, it drew attention to the banning of Israel at the Islamic border.
The journalists reporting on Trump were not allowed to make the direct flight. Their plane, as is customary for all air travel, had to fly from Riyadh to Cyprus for a short stopover before flying to Tel Aviv.
Might this offer an opportunity for Vatican diplomacy?
Pope Francis is particularly sensitive about flight paths.
For his own travels, he insisted on flying from Bethlehem to Tel Aviv, arriving in Israel via Palestine. Similarly he flew to Washington from Santiago, arriving in the United States via Cuba. So the Holy Father would appreciate the importance of the flight from Riyadh to Tel Aviv.
Moreover, Pope Francis sees borders as places of encounter and dialogue. The ban on the Jewish state by Muslim countries could hardly be more contrary to that vision.
There is little Vatican diplomacy could do to reverse the general ban on Israel at the border, but there might be small practical steps that might be proposed; some exceptions to the rule which might open a path toward future reform.
A first step might be to propose that special provision be made for the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land. Headquartered in Jerusalem, when friars wish to make visits to their missions in either Lebanon or Syria they have to do so on a second passport. Those friars who do not have a second passport are out of luck.
Might an agreement for the friars – not a security threat and, not to put too fine a point, not Jews – to move between Israel and her northern neighbours be both a practical advance for the good work of the Franciscans and slight opening in the anti-Israel attitude?
Another potential measure relates to pilgrims.
There are Christian pilgrimages that visit Syria or Lebanon – especially Maronite Christians – as well as Israel. They have to go first to the Arab countries before leaving for Israel via Cyprus or Jordan.
Might there be a possibility for limited permissions so that Christian pilgrims might cross the border into or from Israel directly? For example, the current ban at the border makes it impossible to replicate the conversion pilgrimage of Saul on the road to Damascus.
Vatican leadership would also help bring balance to Catholic voices in the region, which are very tough on Israel’s border security and checkpoints – with reason – but remain silent on the Muslim borders which are closed to Israel.
For example, this commentary is rather typical, written by a fine reporter whose work I follow (and fellow Canadian), Sebastian Gomes. I choose it precisely because he is a responsible journalist, not a radical activist.
He protests the difficulty he had entering Israel with a Lebanese stamp in his passport, which is legitimate. But he doesn’t mention that in the reverse situation he would not have been delayed, but completely denied entry.
The ban on Israel at the border is a small part of the complexities that characterize relations in the region. But small steps are sometimes the right place to start.