A plane carrying Israelis home from the Indian Ocean island nation of Seychelles made an emergency stop in Saudi Arabia before flying back to Tel Aviv, in what Israel praised as a sign of goodwill as the United States works to establish formal relations between the two countries.
On Tuesday, after the flight had landed in Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made an agreement with Saudi Arabia a major goal, seized on the incident to highlight the potential for improved ties.
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“I greatly appreciate the warm attitude of the Saudi authorities to the Israeli passengers whose flight was in distress,” he said in a video recorded in Hebrew with Arabic subtitles, as he gestured towards a map of the region behind him. “I greatly appreciate the good neighbourliness.”
The Air Seychelles flight carrying 128 passengers was forced to land on Monday because of an electrical malfunction.
Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the passengers spent the night at an airport hotel in Jeddah and were flown back by the airline on an alternate plane.
Tracking data from FlightRadar24.com showed the Air Seychelles Airbus A320, flight HM22, diverted to Jeddah on Monday night while it was over the Red Sea. The airline did not respond to a request for comment.
Another Air Seychelles A320 flew to Jeddah on Tuesday from Dubai to pick up the travellers and carry them on to Tel Aviv. In July 2022, Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on Israeli overflights during a visit by US President Joe Biden to the kingdom.
The passengers streamed out of Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport later Tuesday, some seemingly surprised by the swarm of reporters, photographers and party balloons that greeted them.
In interviews with Israeli media, the passengers said their experience in Jeddah was pleasant, with some Saudis even greeting them in Hebrew.
“The reception we got from the Saudis was very surprising,” Emmanuelle Arbel, one of the passengers, told Radio 103FM, according to the Times of Israel. “They said to us ‘You are most welcome’ and were smiling. In truth, we were not expecting this.”
There was no immediate reaction from Saudi Arabia.
Though Saudi Arabia was not one of the Gulf and Arab countries to normalise ties with Israel as part of the 2020 US-brokered Abraham Accords, speculation has grown about an impending deal.
Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official ties, although they have developed strong but informal connections in recent years over their shared concerns about Iran’s growing influence in the region.
A normalisation deal with Saudi Arabia, the most powerful and wealthy Arab state, has the potential to reshape the region and boost Israel’s standing in historic ways.
But brokering such a deal is a heavy lift as the kingdom has said it will not officially recognise Israel before a resolution to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel’s current far-right government, led by Netanyahu, has been blamed for escalating violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, where near-daily raids have killed and injured hundreds.
Israel has also made clear that it will continue to expand illegal settlements in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem, despite international criticism and accusations of apartheid by human rights organisation.
For their part, the Saudis are also apparently seeking defence guarantees and access to US nuclear technology.
Israeli press commentators suggested efforts for normalisation with Saudi Arabia have been severely compromised on the back of Israel’s announcement of a meeting between its foreign minister and his Libyan counterpart in Rome.
The announcement sparked protests in Libya, which does not recognise Israel, and led to the dismissal of Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush.
But Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Monday denied having been the source of the “leak” about the meeting between the two ministers, without providing further explanation.
According to journalist Barak Ravid, the incident could contribute to dissuading Arab countries from engaging in any further steps to normalise with Israel, he wrote for the Israeli website Walla.