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US delegation set to arrive in Israel Monday ahead of 1st direct flight to Rabat

Team headed by Kushner and Berkowitz to land at Ben Gurion Airport before jetting off Tuesday for Morocco along with Israeli delegation to advance normalization deal

US Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner (right) and Israeli National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat at Abu Dhabi airport following the arrival of the first-ever direct Israeli flight to the UAE, on August 31, 2020. (KARIM SAHIB / AFP)
Illustrative: US Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner (right) and Israeli National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat at Abu Dhabi airport following the arrival of the first-ever direct Israeli flight to the UAE, on August 31, 2020. (KARIM SAHIB / AFP)

A senior US delegation, headed by US President Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, was set to land in Israel on Monday ahead of a joint visit with an Israeli team to Morocco.

The delegation, also including the US administration’s envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Avi Berkowitz, is set to leave Israel on Tuesday on the first-ever nonstop flight from Tel Aviv to Rabat.

According to the Reuters news agency, the El Al flight has been given the call sign LY555 in reference to the five-fingered hand or hamsa (five in Arabic) popular as a good-luck symbol in both countries. The first flights to both Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates were also given significant call signs — in those cases the dialing codes of the nations.

The Americans will be joined on Tuesday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, and other Israeli officials for the flight to the Moroccan capital from Ben Gurion Airport.

US President Donald Trump, accompanied by (From left), US special envoy for Iran Brian Hook, Avraham Berkowitz, Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Trump’s White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, applauding in the Oval Office at the White House, August 12, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The historic trip will take place less than two weeks after the North African kingdom announced that it was establishing diplomatic relations with the Jewish state following a decision by Trump to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara.

Morocco became the fourth country in as many months to announce its plans to normalize ties with Israel at the Trump administration’s behest, following the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

The first-ever direct commercial flights from Israel to the parties to the so-called Abraham Accords have become something of a ceremonial affair, with senior officials such as Kushner, Berkowitz, Ben-Shabbat and others taking part in visits to the UAE and Bahrain for high-level meetings to advance the normalization agreements.

US officials make statements at Ben Gurion Airport ahead of the first direct Israel-Bahrain passenger flight. October 18, 2020 (Haim Tzach/GPO)

While the agreements with the UAE and Bahrain have progressed relatively smoothly, the deal with Sudan has reportedly hit a stumbling block.

Sudan confirmed in October that it had agreed to normalization in exchange for being removed from the US terror blacklist. The US last week formally removed Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, 27 years after putting the country on its blacklist.

US Congress still has to approve a bill that would give Sudan immunity from future lawsuits in the US by victims of terrorism. Khartoum has indicated it may pull out of the normalization deal with Israel if the bill doesn’t go through, according to a New York Times report earlier this month.

Morocco announced a “resumption of relations” with Israel earlier this month, shortly after Trump tweeted that Rabat and the Jewish state had “agreed to full diplomatic relations.”

Moroccan Prime Minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani delivers a speech during the opening session of the Opportunities For All economic conference in Marrakech, Morocco, January 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

However, Moroccan Prime Minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani said the decision to normalize ties with Israel would not affect Rabat’s support for the Palestinians.

“The Moroccan position, in general, remains constantly supportive of the Palestinian cause,” he said.

Othmani, who heads the conservative Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), also lashed out at Trump’s peace plan and alleged Israeli efforts to “Judaize” Jerusalem.

Israel and Morocco established low-level diplomatic relations during the 1990s following a thawing of ties between Israel and the Palestinians. Those contacts, were suspended in 2002 in response to the Second Intifada. Since then, the relationship has continued informally, with tens of thousands of Israelis traveling to Morocco every year. Some 3,000 Jews still live in Morocco, once home to hundreds of thousands.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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