US officials: 1st Israel-UAE commercial flight next week

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WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. officials announced Tuesday that the first commercial flight between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is scheduled for next week, carrying senior-level American and Israeli delegations to Abu Dhabi after the two countries agreed to normalize relations.

The flight, likely on an Israeli El-Al airliner, will carry a U.S. delegation headed by President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and national security adviser Robert O’Brien, Mideast envoy Avi Berkowitz and envoy for Iran Brian Hook, the officials said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, announced that his national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, would lead Israel’s delegation. He said the talks would “advance peace and normalization” with the UAE.

He said the talks would focus on flights and tourism, trade, business, health, energy, security and other things. A number of Israeli government ministries will also send representatives, including the directors of the foreign and defense ministries and the national aviation authority.

“This is a historic agreement,” Netanayahu said. “It will spur growth. It will help bring general economic growth, especially during the coronavirus era. I hope that other countries in our region will join the circle of peace.” He also expressed hope that Israeli citizens will soon be able to visit Dubai and Abu Dhabi. “There is a lot to see there,” he said.

The flight will be the first known direct trip by Israel’s state airline to a Gulf Arab country and an important sign of progress in implementing the Aug. 13 agreement by Israel and the UAE to establish official relations.

The UAE-Israel flight also would indicate Saudi support for the deal. Saudi Arabia has voiced lukewarm support and until now has not said whether they would allow the two countries to use its airspace for direct flights. Without Saudi acquiescence, flights would likely have to take a roundabout and potentially risky route around Yemen and through the Persian Gulf.

The U.S. officials, who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the flight and the subsequent meetings between Israeli and UAE officials would be a centerpiece of Kushner’s next trip around the Middle East, which is set to begin this weekend.

In addition to Israel and the UAE, Kushner’s team is expected to visit Bahrain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on what will be the second of two high-profile trips to the region by senior Trump administration officials. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is currently in Bahrain on the third leg of a Mideast tour that began in Israel and Sudan.

The flurry of activity comes as the Trump administration presses ahead with ambitious plans to promote Arab-Israeli rapprochement even in the absence of a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which had long been seen as a prerequisite for the Jewish state to reach peace deals with all of its Arab neighbors.

Trump has made the matter a priority and his efforts have picked up steam in the months before November’s presidential election, in which he is counting on support from conservative American Jews and the evangelical Christian community.

The UAE is just the third Arab country to agree to 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.

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