Making history, 1st commercial Israel-UAE flight departs for normalization talks
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Israel-UAE peaceFirst time an Israeli plane flies over Saudi Arabia

Making history, 1st commercial Israel-UAE flight departs for normalization talks

All aboard the ‘Peace Plane’: El Al 971 with high-level Israeli, US delegations leaves Ben-Gurion; will be greeted in Abu Dhabi by UAE FM; talks to focus on economic, civil issues

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

  • US Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner (C), US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien (R) and Head of Israel's National Security Council Meir Ben-Shabbat (L) board the El Al's flight LY971, which will carry an Israeli-American delegation from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on August 31, 2020. (NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP)
    US Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner (C), US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien (R) and Head of Israel's National Security Council Meir Ben-Shabbat (L) board the El Al's flight LY971, which will carry an Israeli-American delegation from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on August 31, 2020. (NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP)
  • US Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner (L), US National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien (2nd-L) and Head of Israel's National Security Council Meir Ben-Shabbat (C) pose for a picture with the flight crew ahead of boarding the El Al's flight LY971, which will carry an Israeli-American delegation from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on August 31, 2020.(Photo by NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP)
    US Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner (L), US National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien (2nd-L) and Head of Israel's National Security Council Meir Ben-Shabbat (C) pose for a picture with the flight crew ahead of boarding the El Al's flight LY971, which will carry an Israeli-American delegation from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on August 31, 2020.(Photo by NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP)
  • A picture taken on August 31, 2020, shows the El Al's airliner, which will carry a US-Israeli delegation to the UAE following a normalization accord, lifting off from the tarmac in the first-ever commercial flight from Israel to the UAE at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
    A picture taken on August 31, 2020, shows the El Al's airliner, which will carry a US-Israeli delegation to the UAE following a normalization accord, lifting off from the tarmac in the first-ever commercial flight from Israel to the UAE at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
  • US Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner (C-R) and US National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien (C-L) pose with members of the Israeli-American delegation in front of the El Al's flight LY971, which will carry the delegation from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on August 31, 2020. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)
    US Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner (C-R) and US National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien (C-L) pose with members of the Israeli-American delegation in front of the El Al's flight LY971, which will carry the delegation from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on August 31, 2020. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)
  • A member of an El Al flight crew ahead of the first-ever commercial flight from Israel to the UAE, at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, August 31, 2020. (NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP)
    A member of an El Al flight crew ahead of the first-ever commercial flight from Israel to the UAE, at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, August 31, 2020. (NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP)
  • A picture taken on August 31, 2020, shows a member of the flight crew speaking while on board the El Al's airliner, ahead of the first-ever commercial flight from Israel to the UAE at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, which will carry a US-Israeli delegation to the UAE following a normalisation accord. (NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP)
    A picture taken on August 31, 2020, shows a member of the flight crew speaking while on board the El Al's airliner, ahead of the first-ever commercial flight from Israel to the UAE at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, which will carry a US-Israeli delegation to the UAE following a normalisation accord. (NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP)
  • A picture taken on August 31, 2020, shows the word Peace written in Arabic, English and Hebrew on the side of an El Al's airliner, ahead of the first-ever commercial flight from Israel to the UAE at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, which will carry a US-Israeli delegation to the UAE following a normalisation accord. (NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP)
    A picture taken on August 31, 2020, shows the word Peace written in Arabic, English and Hebrew on the side of an El Al's airliner, ahead of the first-ever commercial flight from Israel to the UAE at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, which will carry a US-Israeli delegation to the UAE following a normalisation accord. (NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP)

ON BOARD FLIGHT 971, Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi — At exactly 11:21 a.m. on Monday, an El Al Boeing 737-900 took off from Tel Aviv en route to Abu Dhabi for the first-ever direct commercial flight from Israel to the United Arab Emirates, setting the course for what many in both countries expect to rapidly become a much-traveled route after formal diplomatic relations are established.

The plane is bringing senior officials from Washington and Jerusalem to the Emirati capital to lay the groundwork for the so-called Abraham Accord between Israel and the UAE, which was brokered by the US and announced earlier this month.

In another historic milestone, Flight 971 crossed Saudi Arabia’s airspace, in a first for an Israeli aircraft, shaving some four hours off the flight time.

“For the very first time, an Israeli-registered aircraft will overfly Saudi Arabia and after a non-stop flight from Israel, land in the UAE,” said Captain Tal Becker, confirming the route minutes before takeoff. “We are all excited and look forward to more historic flights that will take us to other capital cities in the region, advancing us all to a more prosperous future.”

Israel El Al flight 971 over Saudi Arabian airspace on August 31, 2020, en route to the UAE (screen capture via Flight Radar 24)

The joint delegation will take part in “working meetings” of Israeli-UAE teams “on a range of issues ahead of the signing of cooperation agreements in the civil and economic spheres,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

“We are about to board a historic flight, the first commercial flight in history between Israel to a Gulf Arab country,” said senior White House adviser Jared Kushner before boarding the plane. “While this is a historic flight, we hope that this will start an even more historic journey for the Middle East and beyond.”

Kushner said he prayed at the Western Wall on Sunday that Muslims around the world would be watching the event, “recognizing that we are all children of God and that the future does not have to be predetermined by the past. This is a very hopeful time and I believe that so much peace and prosperity is possible in this region and throughout the world.”

US Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner (C), US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien (R) and Head of Israel’s National Security Council Meir Ben-Shabbat (L) board the El Al’s flight LY971, which will carry an Israeli-American delegation from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on August 31, 2020. (NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP)

US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, in a statement on the tarmac, praised US President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan for their leadership.

“All these leaders showed a tremendous amount of courage in bringing together the parties and taking a risk for peace. These Abraham Accords will be remembered for many, many years to come,” he said.

The flight crossed over Saudi airspace and was expected to take about three hours.

The first commercial flight between Israel and the UAE, August 31, 2020 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

At 7:30 a.m., as Israeli officials and the traveling press arrived at the eerily empty Ben Gurion Airport for check-in, Abu Dhabi was not listed on the screens as a destination. But at the El Al counter on Terminal 3, flight LY971 — the number is a nod to the UAE’s area code — was displayed on various monitors, inspiring journalists and officials to snap photos of the historic sight.

The flight was commissioned and paid for by Israel but organized by the US in coordination with the Israeli government.

With El Al devastated financially by the pandemic, it is the first flight by the national carrier to depart Tel Aviv since July 1, and the first time the aircraft, which is equipped with a missile defense system, was put in use since March. The flight crew was required to train on a simulator in Amsterdam in a refresher course, having not flown a 737-900 in five months.

Israeli and US delegations are on board the first commercial flight from Israel to the UAE on August 31, 2020 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Health Ministry Director General Chezy Levy, one of several ministry director generals on board the flight, distributed face masks bearing the Israeli and UAE flags.

Upon landing in Abu Dhabi’s presidential terminal, an official reception will be held at the airport. UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash will likely greet the arrivals, officials said.

Netanyahu was not onboard the “Peace Plane,” as American officials called the flight.

“This is what ‘peace for peace’ looks like,” tweeted Netanyahu shortly before the plane took off, alongside a photo of the check-in counter.

The Israeli delegation is headed by National Security Meir Ben-Shabbat. Other senior officials from Jerusalem include Prime Minister’s Office Director General Ronen Peretz, Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Ushpiz, Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman, Netanyahu’s diplomatic adviser and the directors general of various ministries.

“I’m moved and proud to head the Israeli delegation in the talks and Abu Dhabi…. Our goal is to achieve a joint working program for the advancement of relations in a wide range of areas: tourism, health, innovation, science, technology, economy and many other fields. This morning, the traditional blessing, ‘Go in peace,’ gets a special meaning for us,” said Ben-Shabbat on Monday morning.

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)

The American delegation is headed by US National Security Adviser O’Brien and  Kushner. It also includes the administration’s envoy to the peace process Avi Berkowitz and US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook.

“The discussions will be held in working groups composed of Israeli, Emirati and American representatives in the following areas: diplomacy; finances; aviation and entry visas; health; culture and tourism; space, science and investments; innovation and trade,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

One highlight of the trip will likely be a trilateral meeting between O’Brien, Ben-Shabbat, and their Emirati counterpart Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed.

“We’re all thrilled by the pace, the swift pace of normalization between Israel and the UAE,” Netanyahu said Sunday.

“The day will come, and it won’t be far away, when we will ask: How could it have been any other way? Because today’s breakthroughs will become tomorrow’s norms. It will pave the way for other countries to normalize their ties with Israel.”

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.

Paving the way for the visit, the president of the UAE on Saturday issued a decree abolishing a 48-year-old law that had boycotted Israel, thereby allowing trade and financial agreements between the two nations.

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