President Donald Trump's landing in Israel today has already made history – it is the first direct flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel.
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According to the schedule released by the White House last week, Trump was supposed to do something quite unusual during his trip: fly directly from Saudi Arabia, the first stop on the trip, to Israel, the second.
The two countries have a limited partnership in the field of intelligence, since they both view Iran and its proxies in the region as enemies, but officially, they have no diplomatic relations. There are no commercial flights connecting Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport to Saudi Arabia, and Israeli airplanes aren't even allowed to fly over Saudi Arabian airspace.
Haaretz inquired with the relevant authorities and agencies in Israel whether a direct flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel ever took place before. Speaking on background, government officials said that they were not aware of any such flight - certainly not one that took place "in broad daylight" and was reported in the press.
One senior pilot said that he believed that a secret direct flight between the two countries did take place but could not say when or under what circumstances.
Elliott Abrams, a former senior official in the Bush and Reagan administrations, addressed this issue recently, saying on a podcast published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) that "it will be interesting to see when he [Trump] takes off from Saudi Arabia whether he needs to make believe he’s flying to Jordan. And the reason I say that is I’ve been on flights with Secretary of State Rice that went from Israel to Saudi Arabia, and we had to—we had to almost land at Queen Alia Airport in Amman to make believe that we were, in fact, coming from Amman. I hope and assume that that kind of silliness has been dispensed with."
This is a practice that exists not only in the world of government, but also in the private sector. Many Israeli businesspeople work in the Persian Gulf region, and publicly available flight tracking websites routinely show Israeli and foreign private jets flying from Israel to countries in that region. To overcome the diplomatic hurdle of no direct flights, they have to land in Amman, wait several minutes on the tarmac and take off again – with a cleared flight plan.
It is unlikely that such a procedure would be used, however, for Air Force One, the airplane that serves the president of the United States. First of all, because it could create possible security difficulties, and secondly, because Trump's trip already has a busy jam-packed schedule. Trump did speak on the phone with Jordanian King Abdullah on Tuesday, but there were no signs of any preparations for a meeting between the two leaders, for now.
Besides, there is precedent of an American president flying into Israel directly from an Arab country that doesn't have official relations with it. Bill Clinton did it in 1994, when he arrived in Israel after a short visit in the Syrian capital Damascus. President Richard Nixon did the same thing during his 1974 trip to the Middle East, which was the first time a sitting American president visited Israel.
Israir CEO Uri Sirkis told Haaretz that "Trump is drafting a vision which will become reality and bring India and Thailand four hours closer to Israel." Sirkis was referring to a normalization package offered by the Gulf States if Israel makes gestures towards the Palestinians. These steps include the opening of Saudi Arabia's airspace to Israeli flights which would substantially shorten the flight time to the Far East. Sirkis added that such a short flightpath would require the consent of other Arab countries as well, but there is hope."
Two weeks ago, a Greek airliner was supposed to fly from Israel to Morocco with a brief stop on the tarmac of a Greek airport. The flight, which was supposed to carry Israeli tourists to the North African country, was cancelled last minute on order from the Moroccan authorities. Israelis flying to Morocco do so with connection flights through Europe.