With the first commercial flight between the UAE and Israel, previously clandestine ties are turning into an open friendship just as Israel plans its greatest usurpation of Palestinian land since 1967.

Tuesday was a historic day for officials in Israel and Abu Dhabi as their previously clandestine friendship went public.

The landing of the Etihad Airways cargo flight was the first publicly acknowledged commercial flight between the UAE and Israel in their history.

For years now, the two sides have enjoyed a close relationship, but the Gulf state has been reluctant to make it official.

Abu Dhabi’s notorious surveillance operation relies on software sold to it by Israeli companies, and the pair have common foreign policy stances on supporting the dictatorship of Abdel Fattah el Sisi in Egypt and countering Iranian influence in the Middle East.

There has also been limited diplomatic exchange between the states with Israeli Minister of Culture Miri Regev visiting Abu Dhabi in 2018 for a trip that included a tour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. 

Regev had previously shared a video in which Israeli football fans mock Arabs with the chant "may your village be burned", a reference to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians during the Nakba of 1947 and 1948.

While the landing of the Etihad flight was a definite milestone in Emirati-Israeli relations, it seemed one side was doing most of the celebrating.

Israeli authorities, including the foreign ministry, shared a video of the plane on the tarmac at Tel Aviv’s David Ben-Gurion Airport, with pro-Israel influencers and journalists celebrating the event.

The Israel advocacy group, Stand With Us, posted a Tweet that read: “A historical moment for #Israel! The first-ever Etihad flight from the United Arab Emirates, carrying #coronavirus supplies for #Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, landed at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv late Tuesday evening.”

While Israel’s UN envoy, Danny Danon, wrote: “For the first time, an @etihad cargo plane just landed at Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport! Hopefully soon, we will see passenger flights, too.”

For the Israelis, improving ties with the Emiratis is a major diplomatic achievement in a region where few Arab states formally recognise the country.

Acknowledging significance

The Emirati side, however, were careful to frame the flight not in terms of their relationship with Israel, but instead as humanitarian help to Palestinians.

Abu Dhabi’s state-controlled WAM news agencies reported that the flight delivered aid: “To halt the spread of COVID-19 pandemic and its impact in the occupied Palestinian territory.” 

As the Times of Israel points out in its report, the UAE did not “acknowledge the flight nor its significance.”

As if to consciously deny any relation to the Emiratis, the plane that delivered the aid did so without the familiar markings and decals of an Etihad airliner.

That raises the question of why it was hidden. 

The rulers of the UAE could not have been unaware of how the timing of the flight could be seen as a diplomatic boost to Israel at a time when it is facing global pressure to halt its proposed annexation of the occupied West Bank - home to the same Palestinians Abu Dhabi claims it wants to help with the delivery of the aid. 

The optics don’t get any better within the Arab and Muslim world as the flight came just days after Palestinians marked 72 years since the mass displacement of Palestinians from their ancestral lands in 1948, known as ‘the nakba’ or ‘catastrophe’.

The UAE’s Foreign Minister Abdullah al Nahyan has condemned the planned annexation,  calling it “illegal” and contradictory to attempts to find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

According to Tallha Abdulrazaq, a Middle Eastern security expert at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute, the UAE would look to the exceptional conditions of the coronavirus pandemic to explain the flight if it faced criticism over timing.

“(The Emiratis) would easily argue that medical aid to combat Covid-19 trumps any concerns about the annexation plans, which the Emirati foreign ministry has condemned,” Abdulrazaq told TRT World.

That said: "It's no secret the UAE has been seeking closer ties with Israel for years due to shared interests in quelling democratic movements across the Middle East as well as the long-standing issue of threats coming from Iran. 

“There is copious evidence to suggest a process of normalisation is occurring despite no formal diplomatic relations between the two states.”

Explaining why the Emirati plane appeared without its ordinary markings, Abdulrazaq said that it was part of a tactic to gouge what reaction it would draw. 

“The lack of decals on the Emirati flight is intriguing in and of itself. It would appear that they were in two minds about sending the flight directly to Israel for fear of how it would be perceived, and tried a one foot in, one foot out approach. 

“I'm not sure it had the desired effect of reassuring audiences they weren't really developing ties with Israel."

Source: TRT World