Early Monday, President Trump left Saudi Arabia and flew aboard Air Force One to Israel. It was a notable journey, and not just because it was part of Trump's first foreign trip as the U.S. commander in chief: His flight has been widely described as the first direct one between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
On Twitter, deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote that the flight was a “historic moment.” At the least, it was extremely unusual.
Another historic moment on @POTUS first foreign trip. AF1 flies direct from Riyadh to Tel Aviv. #POTUSAbroad pic.twitter.com/3rol2R5miI
— Sarah H. Sanders (@SHSanders45) May 22, 2017
Like other Muslim-majority nations, Saudi Arabia has no formal diplomatic relations with Israel because of the latter's ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. This has several practical consequences — most notoriously, Israeli passport holders are refused entry to many Muslim-majority nations except in special circumstances.
In the past, Israeli Muslim citizens have been required to get a temporary Jordanian passport if they wanted to perform the hajj in Saudi Arabia's Mecca, for example. A number of Israeli journalists were denied visas to Saudi Arabia to report on Trump's trip. Orly Azoulay, Washington bureau chief for the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, told the Forward that it was “an act of humiliation aimed at the White House.”
Trump's flight appears to have been a first, though perhaps in a slightly more limited sense than has been widely portrayed. Government officials told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that they were not aware of a similar flight before — or at least not one that was so widely reported in the press. Two previous U.S. presidents, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, had flown directly from Syria to Israel, but no sitting U.S. president has made the trip from Saudi Arabia directly before.
Many standard commercial flights operating between the Middle East and Europe take large detours to avoid Israeli airspace, sometimes flying through Jordan or Egypt — the only two Arab states to have full relations with Israel. The flight carrying reporters following Trump landed first in Cyprus before continuing on to Tel Aviv.
However, at least one high-level U.S. political flight has been made between Israel and Saudi Arabia. In 1998, Vice President Al Gore flew from Israel to a Saudi air base near Jiddah during a trip to the region, though Gore's route was not widely publicized at the time. There have been other more unusual occurrences, too: In 1976, a Saudi military plane was forced to land in Tel Aviv after inadvertently flying into Israeli airspace.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among those who praised Trump's journey. “I hope one day an Israeli prime minister will be able to fly from Tel Aviv to Riyadh,” he wrote on Twitter. Netanyahu is sometimes forced to make lengthy detours to avoid the airspace of Muslim-majority nations that do not have relations with Israel: In February, his flight from Singapore to Sydney added on four more hours and more than 1,000 miles to avoid Indonesian airspace.
Unofficially, ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel have been warming in recent years. In 2015, both countries acknowledged that they had been holding secret meetings to discuss Iranian influence in the region, though they emphasized that disagreements over the conflict with the Palestinians remained. Israel also has quietly improved relations with other Muslim-majority nations recently, including the United Arab Emirates.
Trump is hoping that a renewed focus on a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians can help end the animosity between Israel and its Arab neighbors. For both Israelis and Arab states, a peace deal would carry the possibility of full diplomatic relations — with direct flights and any resulting deeper economic ties part of the appeal for both.
More on WorldViews:
Trump in Israel: An awkward selfie and bonding over media gripes
The strange route Benjamin Netanyahu took to get from Singapore to Sydney...Read more