A Star of David-adorned El Al plane carrying a US-Israeli delegation led by President Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner arrived in Abu Dhabi Monday from Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport in the first-ever direct commercial passenger flight to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The Israeli flag carrier’s flight marks the implementation of the historic US-brokered deal to normalise relations between the two nations and solidifies the long-clandestine ties between them that have evolved over years of shared enmity toward Iran.
The historic flight came as several people were injured on Monday in an explosion at fast-food restaurants in the Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi, that was likely caused by gas lines in a restaurant, according to officials. In a second incident, one person was killed when a gas cylinder exploded in a Dubai restaurant, local media reported.
With the US as mediator, Israel and the UAE agreed earlier this month to work toward normalisation, which would make the UAE 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 UAE and hopes to have much-warmer relations.
The US delegation included Jared Kushner, as well as national security adviser Robert O’Brien, Mideast envoy Avi Berkowitz and envoy for Iran Brian Hook. Israel's team included national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and the director generals of several ministries.
“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 at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Israeli officials hope the two-day trip will produce a date for a Washington signing ceremony, perhaps as early as September, between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
'Go in peace'
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 cooperation 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 UAE’s international calling code number, flew into Saudi Arabian airspace shortly after takeoff. That marked another historic first for Israel and at least an acquiescence by the kingdom for the UAE's move.
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.
Palestinians were dismayed by the UAE's move, worried that it would weaken a long-standing pan-Arab position that called for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory - and acceptance of Palestinian statehood - in return for normal relations with Arab countries.
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.
Joint ventures, future business deals
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 US officials, looks to place a solid stamp on the surprise August 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 US 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 normalisation 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.
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.
Israel-UAE relations: Israeli, US delegations depart to UAE in first direct flight
A pre-election boost for Trump
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.
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 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's executive committee, said Kushner and his team were "scrambling to convince as many Arab and Muslim leaders as possible" to give Trump an election boost.
"They will be a prop at the backdrop of a meaningless spectacle for a ridiculous agreement that will not bring peace to the region," she said.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)
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