Israeli plane flies to UAE on first direct commercial flight, using Saudi airspace

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An El Al plane adorned with the Star of David took off Monday from Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport, carrying a high-ranking American and Israeli delegation to Abu Dhabi on the first direct commercial passenger flight to the United Arab Emirates.The Israeli airline flight marks the implementation of the landmark deal brokered by the United States to normalize relations between the two nations and solidifies the long-standing ties between them that have evolved over years of feud shared with Iran.

With the United States as the go-between, Israel and the United Arab Emirates agreed earlier this month to work on normalization, which would make the United Arab Emirates the third Arab nation to have full relations with Israel, after the Egypt and Jordan. But unlike those two nations, Israel has never waged a war against the UAE and hopes to have a much warmer relationship.

The US delegation includes President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, as well as National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, Middle East Envoy Avi Berkowitz and Iran Envoy Brian Hook. Israel will be represented by National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat and the directors general of several ministries, who will meet with their Emirati counterparts.

“Although this is a historic flight, we hope it starts an even more historic journey to the Middle East and beyond,” Kushner told reporters before boarding the plane.

Meir Ben-Shabbat, Israel’s national security adviser and head of the Israeli delegation, said he was excited about the trip and that the goal was to lay the foundation for cooperation in areas such as tourism, medicine, technology and commerce.

“This morning the traditional salute ‘go in peace’ has special meaning for us,” he said.

The El Al flight, numbered LY971 as a gesture to the UAE’s international calling code number, entered Saudi airspace shortly after takeoff and then flew over the capital, Riyadh. It marked another historic first for Israel and at least an assent by the kingdom to the UAE’s decision.

Left to right: Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat, White House Advisor Jared Kushner and US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien board the El Al airliner as they travel to Abu Dhabi for talks to put the finishing touches on the standardization deal. (Nir Elias / Reuters)

The flight touched down in Abu Dhabi shortly after 3:30 p.m. local time.

“This will hopefully be the first in a long series,” Kushner told reporters on the tarmac upon his arrival.

“The Middle East is filled with bright, industrious, tolerant and innovative people, and the future is theirs,” he said.

Flights twice as long without Saudi authorization

Saudi King Salman, along with other Arab leaders in the Gulf to varying degrees, maintain their boycott of Israel to support Palestinians who achieve an independent state. Any long-term flight between Israel and the UAE would require Saudi clearance to be profitable. Otherwise, the three-hour, 20-minute flight would take over seven hours.

The plane was decorated with the words for peace in Arabic, Hebrew and English above the pilot’s window. Journalists received special masks decorated with the Israeli and Emirati flags. Siege protectors said “Making History” in all three languages, with Israeli folk music playing in the background.

The captain of the El Al airliner waves to spectators as the plane prepares to take off on Israel’s first-ever commercial flight to the United Arab Emirates, at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. (Menahem Kahana / The Associated Press)

The captain of the plane, Tal Becker, said he received an unexpected call asking him to prepare for the flight.

The 45-year-old veteran, who is the senior captain of El Al’s 737 fleet, said he never dreamed of flying to Abu Dhabi, calling it a “very special feeling”.

The Israeli delegation will stay overnight in the capital, Abu Dhabi, before returning home on El Al flight LY972, a nod to Israel’s international calling code.

Private jets have already flown between the two countries in secret talks, and Etihad Airways from Abu Dhabi has flown cargo ships to Israel to provide coronavirus aid to Palestinians. But Monday’s high-profile theft, eagerly promoted by U.S. officials, appears to put a solid stamp on the surprise announcement on August 13 by the White House of Israel and the United Arab Emirates establishing relations.

Israel-UAE deal suspends annexation:

An agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to normalize diplomatic relations is a foreign policy victory for US President Donald Trump and could create stronger opposition to Iran in the region. 3:39

Since then, phone calls have been connected and the UAE leader has issued an executive order formally ending the decades-long boycott of Israel. Some Israeli companies have already signed agreements with their Emirati counterparts, but Monday’s visit is expected to usher in a series of new business cooperation. The official repeal of the boycott appears to open the door to more joint ventures, such as in aviation, banking and finance.

The UAE has touted the deal as a tool to force Israel to end its contentious plan to annex parts of the West Bank wanted by the Palestinians for their future state.

The Palestinians, however, have fiercely opposed normalization because it takes away one of their few advantages in moribund peace talks with Israel. Palestinians staged public demonstrations and angrily burned the UAE flag.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said it was “very painful” to see the theft, which he said was “a blatant violation of the Arab position on the Arab-Israeli conflict”.

“We had hoped to see an Emirati plane land in liberated Jerusalem,” he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a Facebook post that Monday “is a historic day for the State of Israel that I have been striving to achieve for decades.”

For Trump, the deal offers a key foreign policy victory as he faces a difficult re-election campaign.

On Sunday, Kushner said “the stage is now folded” for other Arab countries to follow the UAE. However, he gave no indication that more deals are imminent, despite a switch in the region last week by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

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