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First commercial flight from Israel to UAE set for next week


WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. and Israeli officials will take the first commercial flight between Israel and the United Arab Emirates next week, flying from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi in a symbolic and substantive demonstration of improved ties since the countries' historic agreement this month to normalize relations.

The flight, likely on an Israeli El-Al airliner emblazoned with the Jewish state's national colours of blue and white and the Star of David, will be the first known direct trip by the flag-carrier to a Gulf Arab country and an important sign of progress in implementing the Aug. 13 agreement between Israel and the UAE, officials said Tuesday.

U.S. officials said the U.S. delegation on board will be headed by President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and will include national security adviser Robert O’Brien, Mideast envoy Avi Berkowitz and envoy for Iran Brian Hook, administration officials said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, announced that his national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, would lead Israel's delegation. A number of Israeli government ministries will also send representatives, including the directors of the foreign and defence ministries and the national aviation authority, he said.

Netanyahu said the talks would “advance peace and normalization” with the UAE and would focus on flights and tourism, trade, business, energy, security and health, including the coronavirus pandemic.

“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.”

The 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.

U.S. officials said the flight and the subsequent meetings between Israeli and UAE officials would be a centerpiece of Kushner's next trip to 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 neighbours.

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.

Matthew Lee, The Associated Press

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