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.
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 Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 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.”
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.
Trump’s flight appears to have been a first, though 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.
However, a similar journey may have been made the other way around. State Department records show that President George W. Bush traveled between Tel Aviv and Riyadh aboard Air Force One in May 2008. There is no record of a stopover in media reports from the time, and reporters following the president on the trip remember it as a direct flight. The State Department said it did not have records that would show whether the flight was direct or if there was a stopover.
Other high-level U.S. political flights have also been made from Saudi Arabia to Israel. In 1998, Vice President Al Gore flew from Israel to a Saudi air base near Jiddah during a trip to the region, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew from Saudi Arabia to Israel in 2007. In neither case was the route taken noted widely by officials or reporters.
This time, Trump’s route has been loudly promoted. 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 3 1/2 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, although 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.