High-level delegations flew from Israel to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the first-ever commercial flight between countries in the Middle East to put the finishing touches on a controversial pact establishing open relations.
Key aides to US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were on board the direct flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, on Israeli flag carrier El Al.
Flight LY971 flew over Saudi Arabia after Riyadh accepted the Israeli request on Sunday – also a first.
The plane carrying the American and Israeli delegations to Abu Dhabi has the word “peace” written on it in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
It is also named after Kiryat Gat, a Jewish settlement built on the remains of two ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages, Iraq al-Manshiyya and al-Faluja.
Announced on August 13, the “normalization” deal is the first such deal between an Arab country and Israel in more than 20 years and has been largely catalyzed by common Iranian fears.
Palestinians were dismayed by the UAE’s decision, fearing it would weaken a long-standing pan-Arab position that called for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories and acceptance of the Palestinian state in return for normal relations with the United Arab Emirates. Arab countries.
Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and national security adviser Robert O’Brien are leading the US delegation. The Israeli team is led by O’Brien’s counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat.
Kushner expressed hope for a more peaceful era in the region.
“Although this is a historic flight, we hope it begins an even more historic journey to the Middle East and beyond,” Kushner said before boarding the El Al plane.
Officials will explore bilateral cooperation in areas such as trade and tourism, and Israeli defense envoys are to visit the UAE separately.
Israeli officials hope the two-day trip will set a date for a signing ceremony in Washington, possibly as early as September, between Netanyahu and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
It could give Trump a foreign policy boost ahead of his re-election in November.
On Sunday in Jerusalem, Kushner called the UAE-Israel deal a “giant leap.”
“To have played a part in its creation, and I say this as the grandson of two Holocaust survivors, it means more to me and to my family than I can ever express,” Kushner said.
The Trump administration has tried to get other Arab countries concerned about Iran to engage with Israel. The most powerful of them, Saudi Arabia, has signaled that it is not ready.
But in what could portend a more relaxed posture from Riyadh, El Al’s plane will be cleared to fly over Saudi territory to reduce flight time.
On Sunday, Israeli broadcaster Kan reported that Israelis feared Riyadh would revoke permission to use Saudi airspace at the last moment. If the flight is cleared, it would mark the first time that an Israeli commercial aircraft has used Saudi territory for an overflight. There was no comment from Saudi officials.
‘Soon to follow’
O’Brien said on Sunday that more Arab and Muslim countries would likely follow Abu Dhabi’s decision.
“We believe other Arab and Muslim countries will soon follow the UAE’s lead and normalize their relations with Israel,” O’Brien told reporters after talks at Netanyahu’s residence.
He did not name the states, but Israeli officials have publicly mentioned Oman, Bahrain and Sudan.
Recent information suggests that Morocco may also consider a similar deal with Israel in return for military and economic aid.
However, Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine el-Othmani said last week “we refuse any normalization with the Zionist entity because it encourages it to go further in violating the rights of the Palestinian people”.
The Palestinians condemned the UAE’s decision as an abandonment of a policy of tying official relations with Israel to the achievement of a Palestinian state in territory captured by Israel in the 1967 war.
In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said Kushner and his team were “trying to convince as many Arab and Muslim leaders as possible” to give Trump a electoral momentum.
“They will be a prop as the backdrop to a meaningless spectacle for a ridiculous deal that will not bring peace to the region,” she said.
The UAE-Israel deal immediately hit a speed bump after its announcement, as conflicting comments about Israel’s planned annexation of parts of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley were made.
Despite earlier comments from the UAE and a joint statement from the three countries that the annexation plan would be “suspended”, senior UAE official Omar Ghobash admitted his government had “no guarantees as such” that Israel would not. annex the occupied Palestinian territory in the future.
Kushner said as part of the Israeli-UAE deal that the United States would not consent to Israeli annexation for “a period of time.”
Netanyahu, meanwhile, felt that the annexation plan – already hampered by disagreements within his governing coalition over the proposed timetable – was temporarily on hold. But Israeli officials have signaled that they want the approval of Israel’s main ally – the United States first.
The Israel-United Arab Emirates deal also faces another problem: a possible sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets to Abu Dhabi that could jeopardize Israel’s technological advantage in the Middle East.
Netanyahu denied reports that the deal with the UAE would hinge on the sale of F-35s to the Emirates, saying he opposed a move that could reduce Israel’s military advantage.
“This deal did not include Israel’s acceptance of an arms deal,” the Israeli leader said last week.
Since the 1960s, the United States has guaranteed to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military advantage” in the region.
The policy was reinforced two years ago with a law that states that Washington must ensure, when selling weapons to another Middle Eastern country, that Israel retains the ability to defend itself if the weapons fall between bad hands.
Israel has already received a first shipment of American F-35s, a fighter also coveted by other Gulf powers.
Yoel Guzansky, senior analyst at the Israel Institute for National Security Studies, told AFP there was no doubt about the importance of the F-35s.
“I absolutely think that without the F-35, the possibility of buying it, they [the Emiratis] will not sign the agreement, ”Guzansky said. This is a major obstacle to the achievement of the agreement. ”
Guzansky noted that prior to the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979, the United States had sold sophisticated weapons to Turkey and Iran, “and now these countries are hostile to Israel.”
But some analysts say a deal can be reached to the satisfaction of Israel and the United Arab Emirates, and ultimately Saudi Arabia, a long-time client of US arms.
“Although it is not really public, from what I understand, arrangements are being made to say that the version the Arab country is getting is not the absolute last version,” he told the AFP Joshua Teitelbaum, Gulf specialist at the Israeli University of Bar-Ilan.
On Saturday, the UAE announced it was abandoning its economic boycott of Israel. Officials from the two countries said they were considering cooperation in defense, medicine, agriculture, tourism and technology.
Netanyahu told reporters that the abolition of the “anachronistic boycott” opened the door to “unbridled” trade, tourism and investment.
Statements released by the United Arab Emirates and Israel on Sunday said the UAE Minister of State and Israel’s Agriculture Minister had spoken by phone and “have committed to collaborate on projects that deal with food and water security ”.
The UAE, a desert state, depends on imports for around 80 percent of its food and has strongly encouraged investment in agricultural technology and farmland overseas in recent years.
Israel and the United Arab Emirates say they want to promote trade – especially the sale of Emirati oil to Israel and Israeli technology to the United Arab Emirates – to establish direct air links and boost tourism.