By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
April 25, 2010

The official explanation for seizing the devices at the airport never did make sense

On the face of it, Israel’s decision Saturday night to allow iPads to be brought into the country was a straightforward reversal of a sensibly cautious import policy.

At least 20 iPads purchased in the U.S. had been seized at Ben-Gurion Airport, confiscated and held in storage for 45 shekels ($12) a day — a fee that now has to be paid by the owner. [UPDATE: According to a report from Israel Monday¬† the storage fee will be waived for owners who declared their iPads at customs and paid the value-added tax.]

The official line is that the Communications Ministry was concerned that the device might disrupt local Wi-Fi networks — including some that might be used by the military. After consulting with Apple (AAPL), an international testing lab and some European communications ministries, the ban was lifted.

But there may be more to it than that. No experts outside (or, for that matter, inside) Israel seemed to be buying the explanation that the ministry was concerned that a device that used American Wi-Fi power standards — rather than the European ones Israel has adopted — could harm the country’s wireless networks.

Meanwhile a different, far more cynical explanation was gaining traction. Time magazine on Tuesday picked up a line of reasoning floated five days earlier in TG Daily by Aharon Etengoff, an Israeli-born journalist who spent a year doing public relations for the Israeli Defense Force:

“It is worth noting,” Etengoff wrote, “that Apple’s Israeli distributor, iDigital, is run by Chemi Peres, the hyper-entrepreneurial son of Israeli President Shimon Peres.

“Clearly, iDigital wants its lucrative cut of every iPad brought into the country — which it will undoubtedly receive when a modified European version of the iPad is approved for import over the next two or three months.

“But in the meantime, iDigital can’t make money off the slow trickle of iPads entering the country via private citizens, tourists and international businessmen. (link)

The idea that the money and power at stake would be sufficient to influence Ben-Gurion custom officials seems a stretch. Israel’s international boundaries are protected like no other, and its border guards don’t need to be told to be extra vigilant with electronic devices. (See Three bullets and a MacBook.)

But even Israeli ministers can be influenced by the weight of international opinion — and we expect, pressure from American high-tech executives used to getting their way.

The order to lift the ban came from Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon. For what it’s worth, the word in Israel, according to, is that Kahlon been not been apprised of the initial decision to ban the iPad because of its Wi-Fi modem.

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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