Saudi Arabia has granted Air India approval to operate direct flights from Delhi to Tel Aviv, sources in the Israeli flight industry told Haaretz. If confirmed, this would be the first time the Saudis are allowing commerical flights to Israel to use their airspace.
According to Reuters, a spokesman for Saudi Arabia's General Authority of Civil Aviation denied the report, saying the agency had not granted Air India permission to operate direct flights from Delhi to Tel Aviv.
If true, Riyadh's approval would mean that the duration of flights from India to Israel will be shortened by two-and-a-half hours, compared to the route currently in use. The new route would allow the airline to reduce fuel costs and sell cheaper tickers to passengers.
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Only one carrier currently operates direct flights from Israel to India, El Al, which flies an 8-hour route from Tel Aviv to Mumbai. The route crosses the Red Sea south of Yemen, then turns east to India. Since New Delhi is a new destination from which there are no flights to Israel, the aviation company will be getting a 750,000 euro grant from the Tourism Ministry for operating the new line, according to a calculation of 250,000 euros per weekly flight. This grant could be, among other things, the impetus for Air India to launch the line.
This is not the first time Air India asked Israeli authorities for such approval. Last year, the airline asked the Israel Airports Authority's to allow it to fly to and from Israel. This was not implemented, however, due to the airline's insistence to operate the shorter route. Discussions on the matter evolved during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to India last month, where intensive talks were held between the two countries in order to approve the flight route over Saudi Arabia.
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Air India's Delhi-Tel Aviv route could be the first concrete and public piece of evidence to the warming of ties between Israel and the Saudi leadership. Though we have known for years of quiet coordination on security issues, there has not yet been any tangible evidence above the surface.
For seventy years now, Saudi airspace has been closed not only to Israeli aircraft, but to those of other nations with a flight-path to Israel. In recent decades there have only been two flights, that we know of, which have flown directly from Saudi Arabia to Israel: the U.S. Air Force One bearing Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump, respectively. It is not rare to see on the air-travel tracking websites private business jets flying from Saudi airports and other destinations in the Arabian Gulf toward Israel. However all these flights make a short stop-over first in Amman airport.
A direct Air India flight through Saudi airspace will not only be a sign of the warming relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh, but also of the growing interests and influence of India's Prime Minister Nardendra Modi in the region. He visited Israel last month and is expected in Jordan and Ramallah next week.
Beyond the diplomatic implications, such direct flights will be a blow to Israel's flagship carrier El Al, which is not expected to receive at this point similar overflight privileges. Air India will now be able to operate a flight which will be at least three hours shorter and most likely significantly cheaper, than El Al's Mumbai service which has to make a long detour around the Arabian peninsula.
Following the reports, Michael Strausberger, El Al's recently appointed vice president for commercial and industry affairs, said he expects that the same approval would be given to Israeli airlines. "We at El Al, and I assume that other Israeli airlines share our view, hope and believe that Saudi Arabia will also allow Israeli airlines, who fly from or to Israel – and not only foreign airlines – to fly over its territory," Strausberger said.
The big winner - and losers
If the new route is indeed approved, the big winner would be, without a doubt Benjamin Netanyahu. Not only would he be able to claim a major achievement thanks to his public diplomacy with India and secret relations with the Saudi leadership, he and his supporters could say that his vision of improved ties with the Arab world, without Israel having to make concessions to the Palestinians, was becoming a reality.
It is still unclear of course whether there is any form of quid pro quo that Israel would give the Saudis for such approval, but it is unlikely to have been on the Palestinian issue. The Saudis, like the Egyptians and other Arab regimes, are nowadays barely paying lip-service to the Palestinian cause.
And the biggest losers of such a move, are of course, the Palestinians. Once again it could be proven that the great Arab nation doesn't really care for them. A Saudi agreement for flights through its airspace, if confirmed, follows a rather weak chorus of condemnation for Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and despite the total absence of a diplomatic process.
Even at the height of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians refused to make such a gesture. Aaron David Miller, a former senior American diplomat tweeted that "we tried for 20 years to get them (the Saudis) to do stuff like this. And got nada." Now, in the wake of improved secret relations, largely due to the joint enemy, Iran, Israel seems to be getting this gesture, seemingly without paying anything in return.
Reuters contributed to this report.