On board a packed airliner taking U.S. and Israeli delegates to the United Arab Emirates on Monday, passengers were welcomed in Arabic as well as English and Hebrew, a gesture marking the historic first Israeli direct flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi.
The El Al Boeing 737 made aviation history by cutting straight over Saudi territory en route to the UAE capital, where Israeli and Emirati officials will hold U.S.-brokered normalization talks on Monday.
“Wishing us all salaam, peace and shalom, have a safe flight,” the pilot, Captain Tal Becker, said on the intercom, in Arabic, English and Hebrew, using all three languages to also announce the flight number and destination.
Passengers received swag bags filled with coronavirus protection gear — disinfectant gel and wipes — and some donned face masks emblazoned with the Israeli and Emirati flags.
Delegates, who included President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, sat cheek by jowl with agents from the U.S. Secret Service and Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security agency.
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.
A request by Reuters journalists to film inside the cockpit went up several chains of command before being approved.
“With two countries’ NSAs (national security agencies) on board, you understand the sensitivity,” an American delegate said.
There was also a bit of security flair to coronavirus checks mandated for journalists the weekend before the trip.
Upon arrival for COVID-19 testing, traveling reporters were told to give a code-phrase — “I’m here for the ‘experiment’” — to be fast-tracked through by a representative of the Israeli prime minister’s office.
Earlier, DPA reports that the flight, operated by Israeli airline El Al, took off at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport to Abu Dhabi, almost three weeks after the two countries sealed a historic diplomatic deal.
The plane, a Boeing 737-900 named after the central Israeli town, Kiryat Gat, had the word “peace” written in Arabic, English and Hebrewa above the pilot’s side window.
The pilot, Tal Becker, told journalists it was the most exciting flight of his life and “a very special feeling’’.
The passengers included a large Israeli delegation, United States government advisor, Jared Kushner, and the security advisors of the U.S. and Israel, Robert O’Brien and Meir Ben-Shabbat among others.
The aircraft was reportedly fitted with anti-rocket protection systems for security.
Talks are scheduled between the delegations of Israel, the UAE and the U.S. upon arrival, covering a wide range of topics from tourism to finance, with the aim of signing several cooperation agreements.
A meeting of O’Brien and Ben-Shabbat with the Emirati Security Advisor, Tahnoun bin Zayed, is also on the schedule.
A return flight is planned for Tuesday.
On Aug. 13, Israel and the UAE announced a U.S.-brokered agreement to establish diplomatic ties in return for Israel suspending a controversial plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank.
The deal makes the UAE the third Arab country after Egypt and Jordan – and the first Arab Gulf country – to have diplomatic links with Israel.