El Al plane, ending landmark UAE trip, again flies over Saudi, lands in Tel Aviv
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El Al plane, ending landmark UAE trip, again flies over Saudi, lands in Tel Aviv

Flight 972 touches down in Ben Gurion Airport on return leg of first-ever direct journey from Israel to Abu Dhabi, bringing delegates home from peace talks

UAE delegates wave to the departing El Al plane at the end of Israel-UAE normalization talks in Abu Dhabi, September 1, 2020. (El Al Spokesperson's Office)
UAE delegates wave to the departing El Al plane at the end of Israel-UAE normalization talks in Abu Dhabi, September 1, 2020. (El Al Spokesperson's Office)

A US-Israeli delegation on board an Israeli passenger plane that took off from Abu Dhabi touched down in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, after a historic visit to the United Arab Emirates.

During the visit, officials from both countries discussed future ties between the UAE and the Jewish state, following a landmark American-brokered deal to establish relations.

El Al Flight 972 landed at Ben Gurion Airport after the jet passed through Saudi airspace, returning along the same path that had brought it to Abu Dhabi the day before.

The use of Saudi airspace by an Israeli passenger flight was another landmark in the unfolding events.

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat elbow bumps with an Emirati official ahead of boarding the plane before leaving Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, September 1, 2020. (NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP)

The UAE and Israel are expected to officially sign the normalization agreement — Israel’s first with a Gulf nation and only its third with an Arab state — at the White House in the coming weeks.

Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser, led the delegation that arrived in the Emirati capital Monday on the first-ever direct flight from Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv. Also on board were US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat.

Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat waves as he boards the plane before leaving Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates September 1, 2020. (Photo by NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP)

Kushner predicted Tuesday that all other Arab countries could gradually follow the UAE in normalizing ties with Israel, causing the “vocal minority” that opposes the move to become increasingly isolated in the region.

UAE delegates wave to the departing El Al plane at the end of the Israel-UAE normalization talks, with the US, in Abu Dhabi, September 1, 2020 (El Al spokesperson’s office)

Asked in an interview with the UAE’s WAM news agency whether he believed all 22 Arab states could eventually recognize Israel, he replied: “100 percent.”

He said another Arab country could establish ties within months, but did not say which nation it would be.

While Israel and the US lauded the delegation’s trip as heralding opportunities for further peace in the region, the Palestinians condemned it as a stab in the back by a major Arab player while they still lack a state of their own.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, meanwhile, charged on Twitter Tuesday that “the UAE betrayed the world of Islam, the Arab nations, the region’s countries, and Palestine.”

US Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner (right) and Israeli National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat at Abu Dhabi airport following the arrival of the first-ever direct Israeli flight to the UAE, on August 31, 2020. (KARIM SAHIB / AFP)

The El Al jet had the word “peace” written on the cockpit in Arabic, English and Hebrew. The flight number, 972, was a nod to Israel’s international dialing code. On the outward journey, the flight was coded 971, the UAE dialing prefix.

The aircraft itself was named after the Israeli city of Kiryat Gat — a point seized on by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh.

“It pains us deeply to see an Israeli plane land in the UAE with the name of Kiryat Gat, a settlement built on (Palestinian) lands of Al-Faluja… in a clear and blatant breach of the Arab position on the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he said.

Kiryat Gat is located within Israel’s internationally recognized borders, and is not in the West Bank.

Kushner did not return on the flight to Tel Aviv, instead heading to Bahrain for meetings with leader King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

‘Broad cooperation’

US, Israeli and UAE officials said they had discussed cooperation in the fields of investment; finance; health; space exploration; civil aviation; foreign policy; and tourism and culture.

“The result will be broad cooperation between two of the region’s most innovative and dynamic economies,” the trio said in a statement.

Israeli national security adviser Ben-Shabbat and his UAE counterpart, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed, joined Kushner for talks on cooperation between the two highly developed Middle East economies.

Israel and the UAE announced on August 13 that they were establishing full diplomatic relations. The UAE is just the third Arab country to agree to official relations with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan. Israeli and American officials have expressed hope that other Gulf Arab countries will soon follow suit, with relations based on mutual commercial and security interests, and their shared enmity toward Iran.

Oman, Bahrain, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia are among the countries that Israel and the US hope could follow the UAE and forge diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. But Saudi Arabia has said it will not normalize relations until Israel agrees to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, in keeping with the decades-old stance of most Arab nations.

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