Biden is first president to fly direct from Tel Aviv to Jeddah
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify that President Biden is the first president to fly direct from Tel Aviv to Jeddah. A previous version included incorrect information.
President Biden embarked on a rare direct flight from Israel to Saudi Arabia on Friday, a trip the White House cited as evidence of warming ties between the two countries.
Previous U.S. presidents have flown direct between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but Biden is the first to fly direct from Tel Aviv to Jeddah. Then-President George W. Bush flew from Israel to the Saudi capital of Riyadh, and then-President Trump flew from Saudi Arabia to Israel.
“Welcome aboard our historic flight,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Israel Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Israeli President Isaac Herzog and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides sent Biden off at Ben Gurion Airport.
Biden landed about two hours later at King Abdulaziz International Airport.
Friday’s flight was preceded by the news that Saudi Arabia would open its airspace to all airlines, including all commercial flights flying to and from Israel. Reports indicate the new policy could pave the way for direct flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia for Muslims to make pilgrimages to Mecca.
The development, while well short of a full normalization of relations between the two countries, represented a step forward and a win for Biden. Jean-Pierre characterized it as a result of Biden’s “persistent” diplomacy with Saudi Arabia.
“As we mark this important moment, Saudi Arabia’s decision can help build momentum toward Israel’s further integration into the region, including with Saudi Arabia,” Biden said in a statement earlier Friday. “I will do all that I can, through direct diplomacy and leader-to-leader engagement, to keep advancing this groundbreaking process.”
Biden administration officials say they are working to help Israel normalize relations with Arab nations in order to build on the Abraham Accords brokered under the Trump administration that saw Israel normalize relations with Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.
“It is on a path that we hope will eventually lead to normalization, but it is the first step, and the first step is a big step,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Friday, referring to the Saudi move to open up its airspace to Israeli flights.
Lapid praised the Saudis for the move in a statement but called it “only the first step.”
“We will continue working with necessary caution, for the sake of Israel’s economy, security and the good of our citizens,” Lapid said in a statement.
Updated at 2:11 p.m.