Saudi Arabia has agreed to let flights between Israel and the United Arab Emirates through the kingdom's airspace, Saudi state media and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Wednesday.
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The Saudi Press Agency said the country's civil aviation authority had granted Abu Dhabi's request to allow airliners "coming from and departing to all countries" and bound for or leaving one of the UAE's airports, to fly over Saudi Arabia, which does not officially recognize Israel. This signals Riyadh's acquiescence for a breakthrough U.S.-brokered deal by the United Arab Emirates to normalize relations with Israel.
Netanyahu welcomed the move, calling it "the fruits of a real peace." In a video statement, he added that flying over Saudi airspace will help develop tourism, lower the costs of flights and cut travel time to East Asia.
Despite the Israeli prime minister's statement, it is still unclear whether the Saudi decision would also apply to flights operated by Israeli airlines between Tel Aviv and East Asian destinations. Israeli planes currently have to fly south of the Arabian Peninsula, making the trip about three hours longer.
Saudi Arabia mostly bans flights to and from Israel from using its airspace, though since 2018 it has permitted Air India to fly over the country to Tel Aviv.
Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud said the kingdom's decision to allow flights doesn't change its position on the Palestinian issue. "The kingdom appreciates all efforts towards a lasting, just peace, in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative," he added in a tweet.
The Palestinians have fiercely opposed normalization as peeling away one of their few advantages in moribund peace talks with Israel. Palestinians have held public protests and burned the UAE flag in anger.
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Also on Wednesday, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi spoke with Netanyahu over the phone, stressing Cairo’s support for “any effort towards regional peace that would maintain the Palestinian people’s legitimate rights.”
Sissi called on Netanyahu to avoid any unilateral moves, and underlined the “great importance” of keeping the calm in the fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli officials told Haaretz that any passengers traveling with an Israeli passport will still be required to apply for a visa before entering the UAE.
On Monday, El Al flight LY971 from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, carrying an Israeli delegation on its way to hold meetings to finalize the normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates, made the first publicly acknowledged entry of an Israeli plane into Saudi airspace.
Speaking at Ben-Gurion International Airport before takeoff, U.S. presidential adviser Jared Kushner said that "we hope this will start an even more historic journey," adding that "this is a very hopeful time and I believe that so much peace and prosperity are possible in this region and around the world."
"While this is a historic flight, we hope that this will start and even more historic journey for the Middle East and beyond. I prayed yesterday at the [Western] Wall that Muslims and Arabs from throughout the world will be watching this flight, recognizing that we are all children of god and that the future does not have to be predetermined by the past," Kushner said moments before boarding the flight.
Passengers were welcomed in Arabic as well as English and Hebrew, a gesture marking the historic move. "Wishing us all salaam, peace and shalom, have a safe flight," the pilot, Captain Tal Becker, said on the intercom, using all three languages to also announce the flight number and destination.
On Tuesday, Etihad Airways, the flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates, began selling Israelis connection flights in its Abu Dhabi hub. This is the first time the UAE airline is collaborating with an Israeli agency, Tal Aviation, which sells the tickets on the airline's behalf.
On Saturday, UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan officially cancelled his country's economic boycott of Israel. According to official news agency WAM, the new decree will allow Israelis and Israeli firms to do business in the UAE, as well as the purchase and trade of Israeli goods.
Jack Khoury and Reuters contributed to this report.