Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair came within moments of being killed when two Israeli fighter aircraft threatened to shoot down a private jet taking him to a Middle East conference in the belief that it might have been staging a terrorist attack.
The warplanes were scrambled to intercept after the jet pilot failed to contact air traffic control. Blair, the international community’s envoy to the Middle East, was flying from the World Economic Forum (WEF) summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to attend a major conference on private investment in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem.
The Israeli aircraft used to intercept Blair’s plane would have been versions of the F16 or F15, armed with Shafrir and Python air-to-air missiles. Both missiles have proved to be devastatingly effective and versatile. The Shafrir 2 missile shot down nearly 100 aircraft in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Air traffic controllers spotted a suspicious aircraft heading into Israeli airspace from the Sinai peninsula on Monday and made several attempts to establish contact. When the pilot failed to respond to their urgent requests, the Israelis scrambled two fighters to intercept what they feared could have been a terrorist attacker.
The fighters flew above Blair’s civilian aircraft to indicate to the pilot that he was considered a suspect target, at which point he finally made contact. The pilot told them that he was carrying Blair.
During the entire incident, Blair — flying with other delegates from the WEF, who were also attending the Bethlehem conference — was not informed of the situation by the pilot.
“They were unaware of it while they were on the plane,” Ruti Winterstein, spokeswoman for Blair’s office in Israel, said. “They didn’t hear about it until afterwards, from the media.”
Initial investigations into the events indicated a technical malfunction was to blame for the breakdown in communication, the Israeli newspaper Maariv said.