A Star of David-adorned El Al plane took off Monday from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, carrying a high-ranking American and Israeli delegation to Abu Dhabi in the first-ever direct commercial passenger flight to the United Arab Emirates.
The Israeli flag carrier’s flight marks the implementation of the historic U.S.-brokered deal to normalize relations between the two nations and solidifies the long-clandestine ties between them that have evolved over years of shared enmity toward Iran.
With the U.S. as matchmaker, Israel and the U.A.E. agreed earlier this month to work toward normalization, which would make the U.A.E. the third Arab nation to have full relations with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan. But unlike those two nations, Israel has never fought a war against the U.A.E. and hopes to have much-warmer relations.
The American delegation includes President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, as well as national security adviser Robert O’Brien, Mideast envoy Avi Berkowitz and envoy for Iran Brian Hook. Israel will be represented by national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and the director generals of several ministries, who will meet with their Emirati counterparts.
“While this is a historic flight, we hope that this will start an even more historic journey for 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 aim was to lay the groundwork for co-operation in areas like tourism, medicine, technology and trade.
“This morning the traditional greeting of ‘go in peace’ takes on a special significance for us,” he said.
The El Al flight, numbered LY971 as a gesture to the U.A.E.’s international calling code number, flew into Saudi Arabian airspace shortly after takeoff and later passed over the capital, Riyadh. That marked another historic first for Israel and at least an acquiescence by the kingdom for the U.A.E.’s move.
The flight touched down in Abu Dhabi shortly after 3:30 p.m. local time.
Flights twice as long without Saudi clearance
Saudi King Salman, along with other Gulf Arab leaders to varying degrees, maintain their boycotts of Israel in support of Palestinians obtaining an independent state. Any long-term flights between Israel and the U.A.E. would require Saudi clearance to be profitable. Otherwise the three-hour, 20-minute flight would take more than seven hours.
The plane was decorated with the the words for peace in Arabic, Hebrew and English above the pilot’s window. Journalists were handed special face masks decorated with the Israeli and Emirati flags. The seat protectors said “Making History” in all three languages, and Israeli folk music played in the background.
The plane’s captain, Tal Becker, said he received a call out of the blue asking him to prepare for the flight.
The 45-year veteran, who is the senior captain in 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 in the capital, Abu Dhabi, for one night before returning home on El Al flight LY972, a nod to Israel’s international calling code.
Private jets have earlier flown between the two nations as part of covert talks, and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways flew cargo freighters to Israel to deliver coronavirus aid to the Palestinians. But the high-profile flight Monday, eagerly promoted by U.S. officials, looks to place a solid stamp on the surprise Aug. 13 White House announcement of Israel and the U.A.E. establishing ties.
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Since then, telephone calls were connected, and the U.A.E.’s ruler issued a decree formally ending the country’s decades-long boycott of Israel. Some Israeli firms have already signed deals with Emirati counterparts, but Monday’s visit is expected to usher in a slew of further business co-operation. The official repeal of the boycott looks to open the door to more joint ventures, such as in aviation, banking and finance.
The U.A.E. has touted the deal as a tool to force Israel into halting its contentious plan to annex parts of the West Bank sought by the Palestinians for their future state.
The Palestinians, however, have fiercely opposed the normalization as peeling away one of their few advantages in moribund peace talks with Israel. Palestinians have held public protests and burned the U.A.E. flag in anger.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said it was “very painful” to see the flight, which he said was a “clear violation of the Arab position on the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
“We had hoped to see an Emirati plane landing in a 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 worked to achieve for decades.”
For Trump, the accord delivers a key foreign policy victory as he faces a tough re-election campaign.
On Sunday, Kushner said “the stage is now set” for other Arab countries to follow the U.A.E. However, he gave no indication that any other deals are imminent, despite a swing through the region last week by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.