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In world first, Air India crosses Saudi airspace to Israel

JERUSALEM (AFP) – Air India launched on Thursday the first scheduled service to Israel to be allowed to cross Saudi airspace.

The inaugural flight took off from New Delhi at 1230 GMT and was to land in Tel Aviv at 1945 GMT, the Indian state carrier says.

“We will be flying non-stop from New Delhi to Tel Aviv from March 22 over Saudi airspace,” Air India spokesman Praveen Bhatnagar told AFP.

There will now be three flights weekly in each direction, ending a decades-long Saudi ban on the use of its airspace for commercial flights to Israel.

Israel’s national carrier El Al currently operates an India service to Mumbai that takes a detour over the Red Sea to avoid flying over Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Saudi Arabia and Israel have no official diplomatic relations, like much of the Arab world. Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab countries with peace treaties with Israel.

The flight approval comes after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described relations with the Arab world as the “best ever”, with common concerns over Iran drawing them closer together.

Leaders of Arab countries have not publicly made similar comments, though that does not necessarily mean they dispute Netanyahu’s claim.

They face sensitivities within their own countries, where the Jewish state is often viewed with intense hostility.

Israeli analyst Jonathan Spyer said that the Saudi concession showed that positive signals were being sent despite the lack of an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty, long seen as a prerequisite for relations between the Jewish state and the Arab world.

“I think that what this shows is even in the absence of that you can have small gestures that are of real meaning,” Spyer, director of Israel’s Rubin Centre for Research in International Affairs, told AFP.

“That’s what I think that this Saudi decision to allow the overflights consists of. It’s small but significant,” he said.

During a May 2017 Middle East tour, US President Donald Trump flew from Riyadh to Tel Aviv on Air Force One in what is believed to have been among the few direct flights from Saudi Arabia to Israel.

Trump says he is working on a plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Spyer said that his administration appears to see Riyadh as “crucial for much of what they want to do on the Israeli-Palestinian track”.

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