A Star of David-adorned El Al plane flew from Israel to the United Arab Emirates on Monday, carrying a high-ranking American and Israeli delegation to Abu Dhabi in the first-ever direct commercial passenger flight between the two countries.
The Israeli flag carrier’s flight marked 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 UAE agreed earlier this month to work toward normalization, which would make the UAE the third Arab nation to have full relations with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan. Unlike those two nations, Israel has never fought a war against the UAE and hopes to have much-warmer relations.
The American delegation included 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 was represented by national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and the director generals of several ministries, who were to meet with their Emirati counterparts.
Upon arrival, Kushner said he came with greetings from Trump. He called the visit “historic” and expressed hope this “will be the first of many” such flights.
“On the plane we asked the pilots to fly faster because there is great urgency between the people of both countries to break down old barriers, to get to know each other, to form new and hopefully very deep friendships,” he said. “While this peace was forged by its leaders, it’s overwhelmingly desired by the people.”
State television in Abu Dhabi broke into its broadcast to show the airplane on the tarmac and aired the comments of all officials, including Ben-Shabbat.
The El Al flight, numbered LY971 as a gesture to the UAE’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 UAE’s move.
“They were very gracious to allow us to fly over their airspace, which they’ve never done before, for an Israeli commercial plane. And so this, again, is another historic breakthrough,” Kushner told reporters on the flight.
He said he would be traveling to Saudi Arabia after the visit. Kushner and other officials have said they hope more Arab nations will follow the lead of the UAE in establishing ties with Israel, even without a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
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 UAE would require Saudi clearance to be profitable. Otherwise the three hour, 20 minute flight would have taken more than seven hours.
El Al spokesman Stanley Morais said the 737-900 is equipped with a missile-defense system, a standard feature on these types of planes and a requirement for this flight. After grounding its fleet due to the coronavirus, it is the airline’s first flight since July 1.
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 has not worked for several months and 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 before 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 UAE establishing ties.
Since then, telephone calls were connected, and the UAE’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 cooperation. The official repeal of the boycott looks 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 into halting its contentious plan to annex parts of the West Bank sought by the Palestinians for their future state. It also may help the Emirates acquire advanced U.S. weapons systems that have been previously unattainable, such as the F-35 fighter jet. Currently, Israel is the only country in the region with the stealth warplanes.
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 UAE 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 added.
Israelis eagerly anticipate the prospect of mutual embassies, expanding tourism to the Gulf and solidifying business opportunities with another country that shares its penchant for technology and innovation.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has touted the deal as validation of his vision that regional peace doesn’t have to go through Palestinian acquiescence and come at the cost of ceding land. But he has come under fire from supporters at home for seemingly giving up on dreams of annexation and tacitly agreeing to a questionable arms sale that could undermine Israel’s regional superiority. Netanyahu denies such a deal exists.
In a Facebook post, Netanyahu said 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 reelection campaign.
On Sunday, Kushner said “the stage is now set” for other Arab countries to follow the UAE. 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.