It would have been unimaginable only weeks ago to see Israeli officials exit an Israeli flag-adorned airplane in the United Arab Emirates and walk down a red carpet on the tarmac.
But that's what happened Monday, marking a first for the countries after they agreed to establish diplomatic relations. Though their U.S.-brokered deal is rooted in the geopolitical interests of the leaders involved, the El Al Israeli airline flight carrying Israeli and U.S. delegates from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi was partly aimed at tugging the heartstrings of ordinary Israelis, who have yearned for acceptance in a hostile neighborhood. The news was meant to play well in the United States, too, with the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem informally dubbing it the Peace Plane.
The airplane headrests and food trays were labeled with the phrase "making history" in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The word "peace" was emblazoned outside the cockpit. Veteran flight attendants called it the most moving flight of their career.
President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner sat in business — without wearing a face mask during stretches of the crowded flight — while some seats were reserved for Israeli and U.S. news outlets. (They included NPR, CNN, the Associated Press, Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal, but excluded The New York Times and The Washington Post for reasons not fully explained.)
The welcoming ceremony in Abu Dhabi was unusual: The Israeli and American officials essentially welcomed themselves in remarks at a podium on the tarmac, while top Emirati officials waited for them in a gilded reception room. Images showing the visiting and host delegations' meeting were released later, but besides a brief news release, we did not hear their actual words.
The same went for a dinner the traveling journalists attended with prominent Emirati cabinet officials and figures. It was documented in a slick Abu Dhabi government video, but our hosts' candid remarks about Israel — after the country overturned decades of boycott in just one day — remained private.
The unspoken message was one of Emirati international stature. To my left sat Omran Sharaf, manager of the UAE's Mars mission launched in July, the Arab world's first. Dinner was hosted in the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a futuristic sunken orb-shaped museum, which has leased the rights to the original Louvre Museum's brand and parts of its collection. The oil-rich emirate of Abu Dhabi has built an outpost of one of the world's cultural treasure troves.
Missing from the peace party were the people with whom Israel are at most in conflict: Palestinians. Palestinian leaders expect Arab allies to withhold relations with Israel until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. They protested the Emirates' move, considering it an added insult after President Trump has repeatedly sided with Israel on some of the conflict's tensest issues.
The UAE has sought to reassure Palestinians it supports their quest for an independent state, but Emiratis were offended by what they perceived as Palestinian insults to their leader. Several Emiratis in recent weeks have privately expressed to NPR their disdain for the Palestinian leadership.
The Israel-UAE deal is expected to yield lucrative business opportunities for the two economic powerhouses, including plans to market regional tourism packages with Jordan and Egypt. Palestinians, whose economic potential is stymied by Israeli restrictions on their livelihoods, might have stood to benefit from the new deal. But when NPR asked Kushner and later an Emirati foreign affairs official if such an offer was in the making, both said no — not that Palestinian leaders would be willing to take part in the countries' normalization deal anyway.
No celebratory Emirati airliner has departed for Israel. Instead the Emiratis have their sights on a very different aircraft: advanced F-35 fighter jets. Despite Israel's concerns that selling the UAE those jets would erode its military advantage in the region, the Trump administration strongly suggests it could reward the UAE for its new diplomacy with a sale of U.S.-made F-35s, in a way that could still preserve Israel's upper hand.
Kushner and his entourage paid a visit to an Emirati airbase where the U.S. military houses several of its own F-35s for Middle East missions. In the airfield, Kushner and mustachioed U.S. military pilots posed for photos with the first female Emirati F-16 fighter pilot, Mariam al-Mansouri, who conducted airstrikes on ISIS in Syria. They stood in front of an F-16 aircraft, sold by the U.S. and emblazoned with the UAE flag. Two gray F-35s parked close by remained in place like unacknowledged elephants in a room.
But that sensitive topic was downplayed by Emirati and Israeli officials on this trip. Instead, Israelis and Emirati officials sat at U-shaped tables in Abu Dhabi's St. Regis hotel to hammer out the initial details of their emerging cooperation, including, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, "a media plan directed at public opinion in both countries."
A talking point they have decided to promote: It is not a cold peace, like Israel's ties with Egypt and Jordan, but rather a friendship of peoples.
One test of that will come when regular flights begin between the countries — Israel hopes it will be by the end of the year — carrying ordinary citizens, not only officials and journalists, and without red carpets on the tarmac.