Saudi Arabia to open its airspace to Israel in nod to Middle East peace

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Sisi tells Netanyahu he supports UAE deal, US peace team heads to Britain

Israeli, US officials land in UAE on historic trip to finalise deal (photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)

Israeli, US officials land in UAE on historic trip to finalise deal

(photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)

Saudi Arabia announced it would allow Israeli flights to the United Arab Emirates to cross its airspace, in the latest sign that the Middle East is slowly moving in the direction of normalized ties with Israel.

“These are the benefits of a peace that is genuine,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, as he linked the Saudi decision to the burgeoning Israeli normalization deal with the Emirates.

Saudi Arabia has clearly stated that would peace with Israel would only be possible once there was a final status agreement with the Palestinians for two states. It’s decision was also not specific to Israel, but rather part of a larger arrangement to open its skies to everyone, even those countries such as Israel with whom it does not have relations.

Still, the move has major implications for Israeli travel and gives an economic boost to the deal with the UAE.  Israelis can travel to countries in the east such as India and in Asia such as Thailand faster and cheaper.

It helps transform the UAE into a travel hub for Israelis, thereby providing extra financial incentives to maintain the peace deal and improving tourism overall.

Saudi Arabia made its announcement after hosting top US officials, Special Advisor Jared Kushner and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien. The two men have traveled in the Middle East this week to promote the Israel-UAE deal and to urge other Arab countries to join them.

They landed in Jerusalem and traveled with an Israeli delegation on an El Al plane to the UAE. It was the first official Israel flight to the UAE and the first over Saudi airspace.

From the UAE, Kushner and O’Brien went to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. A person familiar with the discussions told the Jerusalem Post that Kushner and his team were instrumental in the Saudi announcement that “any country” could fly over its airspace to the UAE.

The US official left the Middle East on Wednesday for Great Britain, where they plan to update Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on the peace making efforts.

Israel’s Channel 13 speculated on Wednesday night that Bahrain would be next, with an announcement possibly in early September.

But Arab officials in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar publicly told the US team that they rejected the two-state map to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict published by the Trump administration in January. Instead they said they supported a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines with east Jerusalem as the capital of Palestinian state.

The Arab leaders said they wanted to first see the Palestinian issue resolved before making peace with Israel.

Qatar’s ruler Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani told Kushner Qatar remains committed to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, in which Arab nations offered Israel normalized ties in return for a statehood deal with the Palestinians and full Israeli withdrawal from the pre-1967 lines.

On Wednesday Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud tweeted that in spite of its decision to open up its skies to Israeli aircraft, the country still held firm on its position with regard to peace.

“The Kingdom’s firm and established positions towards the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian people will not change by allowing the passage through the Kingdom’s airspace for flights coming to and departing from the United Arab Emirates to all countries,” the foreign minister said.

He added that the “Kingdom appreciates all efforts aimed at achieving a just and lasting peace in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi threw his support behind the burgeoning Israeli normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates and spoke against any efforts to annex portions of the West Bank, during a phone call Wednesday with Netanyahu.

“The President affirmed Egypt’s support for any steps that would bring peace to the region,” Sisi’s office said.

Sisi underscored, however, that he remained committed to the Palestinians and that any deal must preserve their legitimate rights. Any agreement should therefore allow for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

“The President affirmed Egypt’s support for any steps that would bring peace in the region in a way that preserves the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, allows the establishment of their independent state and provides security for Israel,” Sisi’s office said.

Sisi told Netanyahu it was important that Israel refrain from any unilateral measure that would undermine the chances for peace, especially any action with regard to annexing Palestinian lands.

“The President also stressed that Israel must not take any unilateral measures that would undermine chances for peace and must refrain from the annexation annexation of Palestinian territories,” Sisi’s office said.

Peace initiatives such as the Israel-UAE deal could break the current freeze with respect to resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, Sisi told Netanyahu.

Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement in 1979 and Egypt in the past has played an important role in peace making initiatives that involve Israel.

The telephone conversation also touched on Gaza. Egypt has long been a broker between Israel and Hamas to keep a lid on tension along that border.

Sisi “stressed the importance of adhering to the truce between the Palestinian and Israeli sides regarding [the] Gaza Strip in light of Egypt’s continuous efforts to hep reduce tensions between the two sides.”

Netanyahu’s office said the Prime Minister had “thanked President El-Sisi for Egypt’s support in advancing stability in the region, especially in Gaza, and asked that he continue assisting in the return of our prisoners and our missing [soldiers].”

“The leaders discussed regional challenges and the strengthening of relations and cooperation in a range of areas. They welcomed the development of relations with the United Arab Emirates,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.

In Jerusalem Netanyahu publicly spoke in support of the UAE deal, and one if its most immediate dramatic impacts, which is the flight route.

“I want to thank Jared Kushner and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed for today’s important contribution. There will be a great deal more good news to come,” he added.

“This is a big breakthrough,” Netanyahu said. “For years, I have been working to open the skies between Israel and the East.”

The first break with regard to Saudi Arabia came in 2018, when Air India was allowed to fly directly to Tel Aviv over Saudi Arabia. Now, he said, Israeli flights to the UAE can do so as well.

“Now there is another tremendous breakthrough: Israeli planes and those from all countries will be able to fly directly from Israel to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and back. Flights will be cheaper and shorter, and it will lead to robust tourism and develop our economy.”

He said that this “will open up the East. When you fly to Thailand or anywhere else in Asia, it will save time and money. This is amazing news for you, the citizens of Israel,” Netanyahu said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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