OVER SAUDI ARABIA (Reuters) – High above a vast expanse of desert the Israeli pilot’s voice broke through the passengers’ chatter on Monday to announce that the plane had just crossed into Saudi airspace.
Members of the Israeli and U.S. delegations paused for a light ripple of applause, as food carts moved through the aisle with barely enough room to squeeze past the throng of White House aides, officials and journalists.
El Al flight LY971, the first Israeli direct flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, had just made aviation history by flying over Saudi territory en route to U.S.-brokered normalisation talks between Israel and the Emirates.
Security had been tight in advance – the route had been kept under wraps by officials for as long as possible, even though the schedule of the flight all but confirmed that it would pass over Saudi territory — an alternative route would have doubled the flying time.
And even before take-off, when traveling reporters arrived for COVID-19 testing they were given a code-phrase — “I’m here for the ‘experiment'” — to be fast-tracked through by the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Wishing us all salaam, peace and shalom, have a safe flight,” Captain Tal Becker told the passengers in Arabic, English and Hebrew – matching the words painted above the cockpit window – as they boarded at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport in the morning.
The delegates included President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat. All sat cheek by jowl with agents from the U.S. Secret Service and Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security agency. Netanyahu himself delivered a mid-flight message to mark the occasion.
A spokesman for El Al said the plane was equipped with a C-Music anti-missile system on its rear carriage — standard for the 737s in the carrier’s fleet.
As the aircraft passed over Oman and approached the UAE – an unusually indirect route, perhaps to keep away from Iran on the other side of the Gulf – passengers took photographs and video of the coastline beneath them.
Then after three hours and 20 minutes, the Boeing 737 touched down in Abu Dhabi and came to a halt, ready for the red carpet reception by Emirates officials. Protocol over, the politics could begin.
(Reporting by Dan Williams; Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, William Maclean, Gareth Jones)