MUMBAI, India — Israel is looking to establish a direct flight route to India, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a group of business leaders Thursday, boosting hopes for an end to Israeli planes skirting the Saudi peninsula to reach the subcontinent.
Speaking at an economic forum in Mumbai, Netanyahu said the goal is for a “efficient and direct route” to be established between the countries.
Israeli planes currently need to fly around Saudi Arabia to reach India, adding some two hours and thousands of dollars of fuel costs to the flight.
The comments came during Netanyahu’s last full day in India, capping a five-day trip meant to boost trade and highlight the country’s growing ties.
Earlier this week, Yedioth Ahronoth had reported that Air India may begin operating direct flights between Delhi and Tel Aviv that would include a navigation route above Saudi Arabia. Currently, all flights taking off from or heading toward Israel — even those operated by non-Israeli airlines — do not fly over countries with which Jerusalem has no formal diplomatic relations.
However, it has been rumored in recent months that Riyadh may be willing to change its policies to allow Israeli flyovers, as the two countries strengthen clandestine cooperation against their common enemy, Iran.
Air India has long been keen to secure Saudi consent to fly over its territories to and from Israel, the paper wrote. If the kingdom were to agree, the move would probably be presented as a friendly gesture to the Indians and not to the Israelis, according to the report.
Speaking to businessmen on his last day in India on Thursday, Netanyahu said that easing travel between the two countries was one way Israel could strengthen economic ties with New Delhi.
“One of things we are trying to do is promote is a very simple idea: an efficient and direct air route between Israel and India, the kind we have now between Israel and Silicon Valley and China,” he said.
“Sustaining these relationships is enormously important because they foster creativity and innovation without our intervention or support,” Netanyahu said. “We are committed to this.”
A full normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia remains unlikely as long as the Palestinian conflict has not been resolved.
Israeli officials declined to comment on the matter, but in private conversations officials in Netanyahu’s entourage surmised that the Saudis would likely be willing to allow overflights to and from Israel even before a final peace deal is reached.
Earlier this week, Israel and India signed an aviation agreement “regarding the cost of flights and strengthening bilateral cooperation in developing air links,” with an emphasis on adjusting “prices as well as safety and security arrangements.”
Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, “are convinced that enhanced people-to-people contacts will forge the strongest bonds of friendship between India and Israel in the future,” the two leaders said in a joint statement issued in Delhi Monday.
“They deemed it essential to enhance connectivity between the two countries through the signing of a Protocol Amending Air Transport Agreement to expand the scope of cooperation in the civil aviation sector.”
Some 20 years ago, Air India terminated its direct flights to Israel because they weren’t profitable. Today, Israel’s national carrier El Al is the only airline to offer direct flights to the subcontinent.
A spokesperson for El Al declined to comment for this article.