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Israeli, U.S. Officials Arrive In UAE To Cement A Peace Deal

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

A jet took off this morning from Israel and landed in the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. government chartered the flight in hopes of advancing plans that Israel and the UAE have to open formal relations. The plane carried President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and other U.S. officials as well as Israeli officials and media. NPR's Daniel Estrin was also onboard and joins us now from Abu Dhabi.

Daniel, I understand there was some fanfare for this first public flight of an Israeli commercial airliner between the two countries. What was that like?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Well, it was a milestone. It held a lot of symbolic meaning. And the Israelis really milked the moment. There was an El Al plane, Israel's flagship airlines, that flew. They decorated the plane with the word peace in Hebrew, Arabic and English. And the headrests on our seats said, making history. I spoke to Israeli flight attendants who said they'd been working for decades for the airlines and that this was the most exciting flight they've ever taken, traveling openly to a newly welcoming Arab country. And then the pilot made a special announcement.

TAL BECKER: Captain speaking - we would like to inform you that we have just crossed the border to Saudi Arabia for the first time in the history of Israel airliners.

ESTRIN: So that's the captain mentioning another milestone - that the Saudis allowed an Israeli jet to fly openly in Saudi Arabian airspace on the way to the Emirates.

PFEIFFER: Since this is the era of COVID-19, did all this travel involve any particular safety precautions?

ESTRIN: We did have to do rapid COVID tests on Saturday night, and we were told that no one tested positive. And then when we boarded, everyone looked like they were wearing masks. During the flight, though Jared Kushner and many other U.S. and Israeli officials were not wearing masks. I asked Jared Kushner, where are your masks? And he said, we have them. He took one out of his pocket, and then he put it back in his pocket.

PFEIFFER: So as you've said, the Americans and Israelis on board seem to be enthusiastic. Were the people from the UAE as enthusiastic?

ESTRIN: Getting the view from Emiratis is a little bit tricky on this topic. There is a sense that if Emiratis here object to the deal, they would not say so publicly or even on social media. I have spoken to Emiratis who are thrilled about the deal. And this evening we met Emirati officials for a very festive dinner. We spoke at length about it, but they asked us not to repeat what they said. The U.S. embassy even told us not to name who those officials are, that they could get in trouble with their country if we did so. But I will tell you one analyst I spoke to, Bader Al-Saif from the Carnegie Middle East Center - he told me that Emiratis see this as a geopolitical national interest to get the goodwill of the U.S. and also to further position themselves as a regional leader in the Middle East.

PFEIFFER: This deal certainly has many cheerleaders, but it also, of course, has detractors. How are critics viewing it? And, by the way, Daniel, is the deal even done yet?

ESTRIN: Well, I think the biggest critics are Palestinians. They see themselves as the main losers in this deal. They have asked countries around the world not to open relations with Israel until the Palestinians and the Israelis make a peace deal, you know, to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. There is a big sticking point in this deal. The Emiratis want the U.S. to sell them advanced fighter jets. The Israelis oppose that. And, no, this deal is not officially done yet. The - we are expecting a signing ceremony in Washington maybe sometime later this month.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Abu Dhabi.

Thanks, Daniel.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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