Sudan's President Omar Ahmed al-Bashir looks on during Sudan's Saudi Air Force show during the final training exercise between the Saudi Air Force and Sudanese Air Forces at Merowe Airport in Merowe, Northern State, Sudan April 9, 2017..
(photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew back to Israel from Chad Sunday over South Sudan, the first time Sudan – which still retains air control authority over South Sudan – has given an Israeli aircraft permission to fly over its southern neighbor.
This less circuitous route trimmed about an hour off the flight time from Chad’s capital of N’Djamena to Tel Aviv. However, the plane was still unable to fly the most direct route, which would have been north from Chad through the southwestern corner of Sudan into Egypt and then on to Israel.
It is one thing for Khartoum to allow Israel to fly over South Sudan, and another altogether for it to grant permission for an Israeli plane to fly over its own airspace, a senior diplomatic official said.
Nevertheless, the official said that there was still diplomatic significance in the fact that the air control authorities in Sudan allowed the prime minister’s plane to cross South Sudan for the first time.
The pilot of the El Al plane carrying the prime minister announced the route over the plane’s loudspeaker, calling it “historic.” He said flight time would be some seven hours.
Israel and South Sudan enjoy friendly ties, but Israeli planes have been denied access to its airspace because that airspace is controlled by Khartoum, which has been historically extremely hostile to Israel.
The majority Christian South Sudan broke off from Muslim-majority Sudan in 2011.Ties between the two countries since have been uneven and tense.
Khartoum’s step can be seen as a tiny gesture toward Israel. It comes only weeks after Sudan’s leader Omar al-Bashir reportedly denied a request by Kenya’s national air carrier to fly over Sudanese airspace on the way to Israel. He said he was opposed to “any normalization” with the Jewish state.
In 2016, Sudan, in the Iranian camp, broke off with Tehran and aligned itself more closely with Saudi Arabia. Last year, Saudi Arabia allowed Air India rights to fly over its airspace on routes to and from Tel Aviv to New Delhi.
Before leaving Chad, Netanyahu told journalists that the breakthroughs Israel has made recently in strengthening ties with the Arab world are leading to inroads with the Muslim world as well.
Following Chad President Idriss Deby’s landmark visit to Israel in November, there were reports that Sudan would be the next country to renew ties with Israel. These reports, however, were quickly shot down by Abdel-Sakhi Abbas, the leader of Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party, who said that normalization was “fundamentally linked to the Palestinian cause.”
In December, at a meeting with Israeli ambassadors serving abroad, Netanyahu said Israeli airlines “can fly over Egypt, Chad, and probably over Sudan.” This, he said, would significantly cut down travel time and expense to South America.
On the seven-hour return flight from Chad, Netanyahu’s plane flew east over the Central African Republic and South Sudan, and then north over Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Red Sea and into Israel.
On the way to Chad, the Prime Minister – who had not yet secured rights to fly over South Sudan – had to make a bigger southern loop and fly over Kenya, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well.
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