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'Salaam Aleikum'

Israeli pilot on Herzog flight greets air traffic controllers over Saudi skies

Pilot offers warm greetings to air traffic operators in port city of Jeddah on president’s flight back to Israel from Abu Dhabi

A screengrab from a video aired on Channel 12 showing the Israeli pilot operating the Arkia Airlines flight carrying Israeli President Isaac Herzog back from Abu Dhabi to Israel over Saudi airspace, Tuesdau December 6, 2022. (Screen capture/Channel 12, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
A screengrab from a video aired on Channel 12 showing the Israeli pilot operating the Arkia Airlines flight carrying Israeli President Isaac Herzog back from Abu Dhabi to Israel over Saudi airspace, Tuesdau December 6, 2022. (Screen capture/Channel 12, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The pilot operating the plane carrying Israeli President Isaac Herzog from Abu Dhabi back to Tel Aviv on Tuesday greeted Saudi Arabian air traffic controllers warmly while flying over the kingdom’s airspace in a moment caught on Israeli TV.

A Channel 12 reporter posted a short video from the cockpit of the pilot’s short exchange with the ground-based controllers in the Saudi port city of Jeddah on the Red Sea.

“Jeddah, Salaam Aleikum! [peace be upon you]” said the Israeli pilot, before giving the details of the Arkia Airlines flight, which were repeated back to him by the Saudi air traffic controller.

The short back-and-forth also aired on Channel 12 Tuesday night.

Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official diplomatic relations, but covert ties have warmed in recent years as the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, has reportedly seen Israel as a strategic partner in the fight against Iranian influence in the region.

The kingdom refrained from signing onto the Washington-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020 as the US and Israel had hoped, but Riyadh is believed to have given the go-ahead to Bahrain, where it retains decisive influence, to join the normalization agreement with Israel alongside the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Sudan.

After the Abraham Accords were signed in the fall of 2020 between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain (and Morocco), Saudi Arabia began allowing Israeli airlines to fly over its territory in a special air corridor for flights to and from the Gulf countries. The kingdom expanded that authorization this summer to include commercial flights to and from Israel to destinations like India, Thailand, China to cut flight time, as part of a multilateral agreement to transfer control of a pair of Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia that was brokered by the Biden administration.

That deal was reached during US President Joe Biden’s trip to the Mideast, with Washington and Jerusalem framing the Saudi decision to open its airspace to all commercial flights as a first step toward normalization with Israel, given that no other country had been barred from such flyovers until then.

Herzog was returning, on Tuesday, from a two-day trip to the Gulf to meet with Emirati and Bahraini leaders.

Herzog said Israeli leaders must continue to work to expand the Abraham Accords.

“This visit was an opportunity to take stock after two years of the Abraham Accords,” the Israeli president told Israeli journalists.

“It started as an agreement, turned into ties between states, and now the… countries want to upgrade the agreements and are working to add more nations,” he said.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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