JERUSALEM — A chartered El Al airliner carrying Israeli and U.S. diplomats landed in the United Arab Emirates at 3:38 p.m. local time Monday, completing a symbolic first direct flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi that officials said would pave the way for formal diplomatic and commercial ties and might inspire other Arab nations to follow suit in normalizing relations with the Jewish state.
The Israeli and U.S. delegations, led by Jared Kushner for the Trump administration and Israel’s national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, arrived in Abu Dhabi for a day and a half of what were billed as “professional” meetings with Emirati counterparts on matters including health, commerce and security.
But the substance of those meetings seemed secondary, and not a close second, to the spectacle of the Israeli-marked El Al jet on the tarmac in Abu Dhabi. The plane flew the flags of all three nations and, with “peace” newly stenciled above the pilot’s side window in English, Hebrew and Arabic, provided the backdrop as a coterie of Israeli diplomats descended onto an Emirati red carpet, with Emirati television broadcasting the pageantry live.
Driving home the point, Ben-Shabbat, who wears a kippa, spoke in fluent Arabic.
“I’m proud and very happy to be here as the head of the Israeli delegation,” he said. “We came here to transform the vision into a reality. There are no limits to the cooperation that we can develop in the fields of science, innovation, tourism, aviation, agriculture, energy and many other areas.”
And Kushner, who has spearheaded the Trump administration’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, said he had “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.”
The 3 hour, 20 minute flight from Ben-Gurion Airport — given the flight number LY971, a nod to the Emirati country code — marked another important first: About half an hour in, the pilot announced that the plane had entered Saudi airspace. While Saudi Arabia has allowed Air India jetliners to use its airspace to reach Israel, officials said this was the first time it had explicitly allowed an Israeli commercial jet to transit its skies.
Avoiding Saudi airspace would have meant about a seven-hour flight, said the captain, Tal Becker, who was given the honor of making history as El Al’s most senior pilot.
Although the trip was to the Emirates, the message being sent by both Israeli and U.S. officials was very much aimed at the Palestinians.
“The very few who have been critical of this peace agreement,” Kushner said in Abu Dhabi, “are the ones with a long track record of failure and trapping their own people in misery and poverty. They exploit division to maintain power, but their rhetoric has grown tired, and the region is breaking free from their grip.”
He added that “the Middle East is filled with brilliant, industrious, tolerant and innovative people and the future belongs to them.”
Similarly, on Sunday, alongside Kushner and the U.S. national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel had praised the deal-in-the-making with the UAE as sending a message that the Palestinians could no longer hold what he called a “veto” over Israel’s efforts to gain acceptance in the region.
“As more Arab and Muslim countries join the circle of peace, the Palestinians will eventually understand that their veto has dissipated and they will be hard pressed to remain outside the community of peace,” Netanyahu said.
While Hamas, the militant group that rules in Gaza, condemned Monday’s flight, the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister, Muhammad Shtayyeh, registered objections to it more in sadness than in anger.
The El Al plane for the Abu Dhabi run — a 737-900 equipped with a missile-defense system — is named for Kiryat Gat, a city in southern Israel that was built in part on the Arab village of Fallujah, where several thousand Egyptian soldiers were surrounded in 1948 during Israel’s war for independence.
At a weekly Cabinet meeting in Ramallah, Shtayyeh alluded to that history.
“It deeply pains us that we are seeing an Israeli plane carrying the name Kiryat Gat — the colony that was built on the lands of al-Fallujah, where Gamal Abdel Nasser was besieged — land in the Emirates, in a clear and disgraceful violation of the Arab position on the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he said.
“We very much wanted an Emirati plane to land with its passengers in liberated Jerusalem, but we are living in the difficult Arab era,” Shtayyeh added.
The Israeli-Emirati agreement, which is expected to be consummated in Washington in the coming weeks, has been welcomed more with curiosity than with jubilation among Israelis. Most are more concerned about the spread of the coronavirus and their battered economy than about the possibility of visiting Abu Dhabi in a pandemic-free future.
Announced Aug. 13, it gave Netanyahu a graceful exit from his bogged-down push to annex West Bank territory that the Palestinians want for a future state, gave the Emiratis the opportunity to enhance their reputation in the West having compromised it in conflicts in Yemen and Libya, and gave President Donald Trump a solid foreign-policy victory in the middle of a difficult reelection campaign.
It also brought into the open a relationship that was one of the Middle East’s worst-kept secrets, as the Emiratis and Israelis have long cooperated on national-security matters, particularly in facing off against their common adversary, Iran.
But an accompanying U.S. push to sell the F-35 stealth fighter to the Emiratis, who for years have pressed to buy it in vain, has caused consternation in Israel over the prospect that it would sharply alter the military balance in the Middle East and weaken Israel’s strong advantage.
Kushner said he expected that Trump and Netanyahu would discuss the F-35 but said that Netanyahu “has full trust and confidence in President Trump to do what is right — to protect Israel, to make sure that he further strengthens the defense relationship that we have.”