Making history, first commercial Israel-UAE flight

At exactly 11:21 a.m. on August 31st, 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 received approval to cross Saudi Arabia’s airspace, in a first for an Israeli aircraft, the pilot confirmed minutes before takeoff.

“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. “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.”

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.”

The flight will cross over Saudi airspace and take about three hours.

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.

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 greet the arrivals, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

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.

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.

Israel and the UAE announced on August 13 2020 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 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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