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A true moment of Middle East history

The first Israeli aircraft to land openly in the UAE was also the first to fly directly through Saudi airspace

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It was an event for which the cliché, ‘Its importance was in its very existence’, was coined. The Israeli delegation to the United Arab Emirates spent less than twenty-four hours in the Persian Gulf this week but it had made history even before landing in Abu Dhabi. The first Israeli aircraft to land openly in the UAE was also the first to fly directly through Saudi airspace — a double first so significant that the national carrier El Al, its entire fleet grounded for four months due to Covid-19, restored one of its Boeing 737s to service and took a crew out of furlough just so another airline wouldn’t have the privilege. The flight was LY971, for the UAE’s international phone code.

What else was achieved by the visit, led by Israel’s diminutive national security advisor, Meir Ben Shabbat, beyond the repeated “historic” superlative? That is more difficult to gauge at this point. Half a dozen working teams have been established between the two countries and an initial agreement on banking and financial services is already signed. The visit was an opportunity for senior officials on both sides to meet in person, though Israeli diplomats have been at pains to stress that they have actually been in touch for years. And the day after the delegation returned came the news that the Saudis have agreed that future flights from Ben Gurion airport to the UAE can continue flying over their territory.

This is a landmark decision. There have been direct flights to the Arab capitals of Cairo and Amman since Israel signed its peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan but once flights to the gulf become a daily routine, it will be the end of a regional blockade of Israel that has been in effect since the country’s foundation in 1948. It is hard to predict the lasting effect but it will almost undoubtedly be major.

Many question-marks still linger. The Emirati hosts put on an impeccable show for their guests, who included also an American delegation led by presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. For him and the considerable number of other Orthodox Jews there were lavish buffets of kosher catering on hand throughout. But they were at pains to point out, both in public and private, that they were still supporting Palestinian statehood and had only agreed to the deal with Israel after Benjamin Netanyahu had promised to suspend his plans to annex parts of the West Bank — and that they expect to receive F-35 stealth fighters from the US.

It is also unclear whether other Arab countries are about to join the UAE. Mr Kushner flew on from Abu Dhabi to Bahrain but sources there said they were not rushing in quite yet.

By flying the Israeli flag on their soil, Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed has underlined the point that he sees his country as a major player in the region. He can pursue an independent foreign policy, just as he has done in interventions in Yemen and Libya. He has decided to use what may be the last months of the Trump administration to carry out this move and both he and Mr Netanyahu are expected within weeks to attend a spectacular signing ceremony in the White House.

So far, the response from the rest of the Arab world has been muted, with a few pro-American regimes congratulating and most others remaining silent. The region is waiting now for the US results on November 3 and the possibility of a new administration with different foreign policy priorities, before deciding how to proceed.

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