Saudi Arabia and Bahrain will allow all flights to and from Israel to use their airspace in a significant change of policy, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner said Wednesday.
The two Gulf countries agreed last week to open their skies to Israeli flights to the United Arab Emirates following the announcement of the normalization deal between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi.
However, Kushner told reporters, in a briefing ahead of a planned White House signing of the deal next week, that this would now include any and all Israeli flights to and from the East.
“They agreed to open their airspace not just to flights from Israel to the United Arab Emirates and back, but to all eastward travel,” Kushner said. “So when people make requests, they’ll grant those requests. That will save people a lot of time. That knocks down a barrier that’s been up for 72 years.”
Israeli airlines had been at a significant disadvantage in the past, being forced to take a detour of several hours skirting the Gulf and Iran on flights to the Far East. Saudi Arabia last year allowed Air India flights to Israel to use their airspace, but not El Al flights on the same route.
Allowing the use of Saudi and Bahraini airspace makes direct flights between Tel Aviv and the Emirates viable by cutting flying time from some seven hours to only three and a half hours.
Kushner said Saudi airlines would also benefit, by being allowed to fly over Israeli airspace, shortening their flights to Europe.
Bahrain, like Saudi Arabia, has no official diplomatic relations with Israel, but their decision to allow overflights marks a sign of cooperation with the Jewish state.
Bahrain would only be on the flight path between Israel and the UAE if flights were allowed over Qatar, which has not signaled any willingness for warming ties with the Jewish state.
However, a decades old agreement gives Bahrain control of much of Qatar’s airspace, according to a report by Axios last week, meaning the move could potentially cut flying time by about 20 minutes.
On August 31, an Israeli El Al jet flew for the first time over Saudi Arabia to the UAE carrying a US-Israeli delegation led by Kushner to mark Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem agreeing to formalize their long-secret ties.
The plane flew over Riyadh and then took a slightly circular route skirting the northern Omani border, before landing in the Emirati capital. The same plane made the return journey, again via Saudi airspace, the next say, this time without the Americans on board.
The United Arab Emirates and Israel are expected to sign the US-brokered accord, Israel’s first with a Gulf nation and only its third with an Arab state, at the White House on September 15.
US and Israeli officials have said other Arab states may follow the UAE’s lead to normalize ties with Israel.
However, Bahrain’s king told Kushner, who is leading the normalization push, that Manama would only join up in concert with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh’s crown prince told Kushner that an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord must precede any normalization, in line with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.
Speaking Wednesday, Kushner indicated that Saudi and Arab patience with the Palestinians could be wearing thin.
“King Salman and the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, they feel very strongly about the Palestinian cause. They would like to see the Palestinians work a fair deal and improve the lives of their people,” Kushner said.
“But again, they’re going to do what’s in the best interests of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi people and Muslim people from throughout the world as they take that responsibility very seriously,” Kushner said. “We’ll see what happens and for how long, you know, they want to do it. But I will say that a lot of people are losing patience with the Palestinian leadership.”
That was also highlighted Wednesday when the Arab League failed to pass a resolution proposed by the Palestinian Authority which would have condemned the normalization deal.
Kushner said the Arab League stance was another sign of that the Middle East was changing and “countries are doing now what’s in their best interests.”
“Countries support the Palestinians. America supports the Palestinians. But people want to see a resolution that’s a fair and proper resolution, but they’re not going to hold back their own progress now in order to allow this conflict to continue to be stuck in the mud,” he said.
Kushner, who is also US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, said that Tuesday’s White House signing ceremony would be a bipartisan event.
“We will invite Democrats and Republicans to be here,” Kushner said. “This [agreement] has been praised by people on both sides of the aisle, and hopefully this is one issue that can stay out of politics.”