Ted Cruz Questions Whether Obama Is Boycotting Israel By Grounding Flights

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) suggested Wednesday that the Obama administration was conducting an "economic boycott" of Israel in order to force an immediate halt to that country's latest military incursion into the Gaza Strip, which has been marked by escalating death and destruction since it began earlier this month.

In a sharply worded statement released by his office, the conservative firebrand questioned why the Federal Aviation Administration had extended its prohibition on U.S. flights heading to Israel's main airport in Tel Aviv for a second day in a row.

“Given that some 2,000 rockets have been fired into Israel over the last six weeks, many of them at Tel Aviv, it seems curious to choose yesterday at noon to announce a flight ban, especially as the Obama Administration had to be aware of the punitive nature of this action," he said.

The FAA suspended flights Tuesday to Ben Gurion International Airport out of security concerns after a missile fell within a mile of the airport. The European Aviation Safety Agency soon followed suit by issuing a similar recommendation. The concern over the incident comes after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was struck by a surface-to-air missile over Eastern Ukraine last week.

But the Israeli government maintains that the airport is safe and that it had decided not to shoot down the missile because it was not endangering the airport. Moreover, critics say the ban threatens Israel's tourism industry and unfairly rewards Hamas.

The decision even drew rebuke from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), who flew to Tel Aviv on Tuesday to demonstrate the safety of the route. “I’m just trying to show that it’s safe, and a great place to visit, and Israel has a right to defend its people, and they’re doing exactly what they should be doing," he said in a statement.

In his statement on Wednesday, Cruz expressed concern that the ban would deal a "crippling blow" to Israel's economy. He further questioned whether the decision to ground the flights was politically motivated to "punish" Israel for its ground invasion of Gaza.

“Until these serious questions are answered, the facts suggest that President Obama 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," he said.

Marie Harf, a spokeswoman for the State Department, told reporters Wednesday that any allegation of economic blackmail was "ridiculous" and "offensive."

Cruz's office soon fired back, claiming the ban empowered Hamas.

"Well, we find the Obama Administration's foreign policy to be ridiculous and offensive," said Cruz press secretary Catherine Frazier. "The American people deserve answers to these questions and Sen. Cruz will continue to press for them."

UPDATE -- 8:29 p.m.: Sen. Cruz announced Wednesday evening his intention to place a procedural hold on all State Department nominees until the Obama administration responds to his queries about the flight ban. Fifty-eight nominees are pending before the Senate, including 43 ambassadors, according to Secretary of State John Kerry.

"Serious questions were asked about the nature of a decision that handed Hamas a public relations victory and will cost Israel billions of dollars," Cruz said in a statement. "The only thing 'offensive' about this situation is how the Obama Administration is spurning our allies to embolden our enemies; the only thing 'ridiculous' is the administration's response to basic questions. Until the State Department answers my questions, I will hold all State Department nominees."

UPDATE -- 10:25 p.m.: A Senate Democratic leadership aide said Cruz's move doesn't amount to much.

"Republicans are blocking nearly all nominees already, so this isn't a major change," the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told HuffPost. "In reality, all Cruz is doing is trying to find an excuse for the GOP's obstruction. They want to force us to waste limited Senate floor time and delay the approval of nominees in a timely manner."

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Sen. Ted Cruz