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Historic first Israel-UAE commercial flight likely to cross Saudi airspace

El Al flight 971 to depart Monday morning carrying high-level Israeli and US delegations to Abu Dhabi for two days of talks on civil and economic details of normalization deal

A peace logo in Arabic, English and Hebrew is painted on El Al flight 971 on August 30, 2020 ahead of its maiden direct flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi (El Al spokesperson)
A peace logo in Arabic, English and Hebrew is painted on El Al flight 971 on August 30, 2020 ahead of its maiden direct flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi (El Al spokesperson)

El Al Flight 971 will depart Ben Gurion Airport on Monday morning, making history as the first commercial flight from Israel to the United Arab Emirates as it carries delegations from Israel and the US for talks on the recently agreed normalization agreement between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi.

The flight is expected to take off at 10:30 a.m. and land at 3:05 p.m, according to the Israeli Airline Pilots Association, which released a tentative map of 971’s route on Sunday evening, showing the plane slated to cross through Saudi airspace.

However, the pilots union stressed the route is still not final “and to the best of our knowledge still hasn’t been approved by the Saudis.”

Since 2018, Saudi Arabia has allowed Air India flights to Israel to use its airspace, but not Israeli airlines, which have to take a long detour via the Red Sea.

If Riyadh does indeed allow El Al to use its airspace as multiple reports suggested Sunday, it will cut the flight time by roughly five hours, to just over three hours.

Citing unnamed sources, Channel 12 said Saudi Arabia had authorized the use of its airspace after receiving a request from Washington and only agreed to do so because a high-level American delegation will be aboard the plane. Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have formal ties, but are believed to covertly cooperate closely.

The flight number LY971 is a nod to the UAE’s international calling code. A return flight to Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on Tuesday will be numbered LY972, Israel’s international calling code.

El Al also painted a peace logo in Arabic, English and Hebrew on flight 971.

On Sunday Prime Minister Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosted senior American officials who brokered the historic deal between Israel and the UAE.

Speaking during a press conference alongside US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner and US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, Netanyahu hailed the agreement, saying Israel’s normalization of ties with the UAE will pave the way for treaties with more Arab countries since it has removed the “Palestinian veto” on peace between the Jewish state and the Arab world.

US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, left, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and White House adviser Jared Kushner make joint statements to the press about the Israeli-United Arab Emirates peace accords, in Jerusalem, August 30, 2020. (Debbie Hill/Pool Photo via AP)

Kushner said that the US peace proposal, unveiled by Trump in January at the White House, includes a “gracious offer” to the Palestinians and showed the world that “Israel is ready to make peace.”

He said the release of Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal was the “breakthrough” that led to the agreement between Israel and the UAE. “There’ll be a lot more to come.”

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

The UAE is just the third Arab country to agree to establish 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.

Tel Aviv City Hall is lit up with the flag of the United Arab Emirates as the UAE and Israel announce an agreement establishing full diplomatic ties, August 13, 2020, (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

Earlier on Sunday, the Prime Minister’s Office said the Israeli delegation would be civilian in nature and that defense officials would travel in the coming two weeks.

The two-day visit will include a trilateral meeting in Abu Dhabi between the heads of the delegations — National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat, O’Brien and Kushner for the US, and UAE National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed, the Prime Minister’s Office said.

PMO Director General Ronen Peretz and Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Ushpiz are coordinating the work of government ministries in the civil and economic spheres and will deal with diplomacy, finances, aviation and entry visas, health, culture and tourism, space, science and investments, innovation and trade.

Also among those in the Israeli delegation are Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman, Health Ministry Director General Prof. Chezy Levy, Science and Technology Ministry Director General Shai-Li Spiegelman, Economy and Industry Ministry Director General David Laffler, Population and Immigration Authority Director General Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, Regional Cooperation Ministry Director General Yosef Drazhnin, National Cyber Directorate head Yigal Unna, Chief Scientist and Innovation Authority head Dr. Amiram Applebaum, Civil Aviation Authority Director Yoel Feldasho, Bank of Israel Supervisor of Banks Yair Avidan, Finance Ministry Chief Economist Shira Greenberg, Tourism Ministry Deputy Director General Pini Shani, Culture and Sports Ministry Culture Authority head Galit Wahabe Shasho.

Ahead of the flight, the Health Ministry exempted Israelis returning from nine additional countries with low COVID-19 rates from a mandatory 14-day quarantine from midnight Sunday, including from the United Arab Emirates.

The decision to include the UAE means that delegation members will not need to quarantine upon their return.

Also paving the way for the visit, the president of the UAE on Saturday issued a decree abolishing a law that had boycotted Israel and allowing trade and financial agreements between the two nations.

The state-run WAM news agency said the move formally ending the boycott came on the orders of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi and the Emirates’ leader.

WAM said the new decree allows Israelis and Israeli firms to do business in the UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula. It also allows for the purchase and trade of Israeli goods.

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