First Israel-UAE commercial flight to take off Monday

Kushner, O’Brien, Berkowitz to take part in historic flight alongside Israeli delegation headed by National Security Adviser Ben-Shabbat, according to PM’s office and US officials

El Al planes on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport on August 3, 2020. (Jack Guez/ AFP)
El Al planes on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport on August 3, 2020. (Jack Guez/ AFP)

US officials announced Tuesday that the first commercial flight between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is scheduled for next week, carrying American and Israeli delegations to Abu Dhabi after the two countries agreed to normalize relations.

The flight, likely on an Israeli El Al airliner, would carry a US delegation headed by US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, the officials said.

They added that the Israeli delegation would be made up of experts in the fields of aviation, space, health and banking.

The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Prime Minister’s Office said the flight would depart this coming Monday and that the Israeli delegation would be led by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat. Also taking part would be the head of the Civil Aviation Authority and the directors of the PMO, the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry.

The Israeli statement didn’t include a reference to the flight being direct or to an El Al airliner being used.

It said the US delegation, apart from Kushner and O’Brien, would also include special envoy for international negotiations Avi Berkowitz.

US President Donald Trump, accompanied by (From left), US special envoy for Iran Brian Hook; Avraham Berkowitz, Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations; US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman; Trump’s White House senior adviser Jared Kushner; and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, applauding in the Oval Office at the White House, August 12, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Netanyahu’s office said the talks in Abu Dhabi would focus on ways to promote collaborations in fields including aviation, tourism, trade, finance, health, energy and defense.

Netanyahu said the talks would “advance peace and normalization” with the UAE.

“This is a historic agreement,” Netanayahu said. “It will spur growth. It will help bring general economic growth, especially during the coronavirus era. I hope that other countries in our region will join the circle of peace.” He also expressed hope that Israeli citizens will soon be able to visit Dubai and Abu Dhabi. “There is a lot to see there,” he said.

It will be the first known direct flight by Israel’s national airline to a Gulf Arab country and an important sign of progress in implementing the agreement by Israel and the UAE to establish official relations.

The flight also would indicate Saudi support for the deal.

The Saudis have voiced lukewarm support and until now have not said whether they would allow the two countries to use their airspace for direct flights. Without Saudi acquiescence, flights would likely have to take a roundabout and potentially risky route around Yemen and through the Persian Gulf.

Israel and the UAE announced on August 13 that they were establishing full diplomatic relations, in a US-brokered deal that also required Israel to suspend its plan to annex parts of the West Bank.

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.

Israeli and United Arab Emirates flags line a road in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, on August 16, 2020. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took off Tuesday on the first official direct flight between Israel — where he met Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi — and Sudan.

From there, he will travel to Bahrain, before traveling to Abu Dhabi for talks with Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan on the Israel-UAE agreement and other regional issues, according to the State Department. Officials said stops in Oman and Qatar are also possible.

Pompeo will be followed to many of the same destinations later in the week by Kushner, diplomats said.

Neither Pompeo’s nor Kushner’s trips are expected to result in immediate announcements of breakthroughs, but both are aimed at building on the success of the Israel-UAE agreement by finalizing at least one, and potentially more, normalization deals between Arab countries and Israel in the near future.

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