A deeply cynical game is being played over a BBJ-1 Boeing Business jet aircraft bearing the registration mark B-5286. It’s a version of the familiar Boeing 737-700 airliner that you and I might travel on – economy class in our case, perhaps – a 541-miles per hour jet with a range of more than 6,000 miles and a going rate of $50m for none other than 82-year old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Israelis were the first to publicise the purchase of the aircraft. How could the Palestinians afford such opulence when Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t even have a private jet? What parsimoniousness the Israeli prime minister shows! What economy of spirit! What a splendid comparison to the free-spending refugees of “Palestine”!
Official documents seen by The Independent do prove that a subsidiary of the Palestine Investment Fund – the putative state’s own sovereign wealth fund whose ultimate shareholder is declared to be “the people of Palestine” – will own the aircraft when the purchase is complete, but the Israeli media have inevitably been crowing about the extraordinary “luxury” in which Abbas will travel while his minions are condemning last month’s threat by Donald Trump to cut aid to Palestinians and “starve Palestinian children in refugee camps”. Touche.
Before we get into the hypocrisy of publicising the modest travel arrangements of an Israeli prime minister who may soon face an Israeli police indictment for corruption – a charge Netanyahu denies – it is as well to mention Israel’s own plans for a prime ministerial “Air Force One”, which would reportedly cost far more than Abbas’s jet – around $70m, although similar in manufacture and design. This followed Israeli public protests over the installation of a double bed for Netanyahu on his 2013 El Al flight to London to attend Margaret Thatcher’s funeral (this alone cost Israeli taxpayers $127,000). According to Israel’s Channel 2 television, El Al even wanted to charge its own government $4,700 to install an on-board oxygen tank for then-president Shimon Peres.
Buying private jets is a complicated business, and the documents studied by The Independent show that talks started for the purchase of Abbas’s aircraft last Autumn – long before Trump’s threats – and that they involved buying the $50m plane from the Chinese Nanshan Jet company through Jetcraft Corporation of Minnesota in the US, and a “good faith” deposit of $500,000 with lawyers Donald H Bunker Associates in Dubai. Several documents are signed by Wael Sobeih, the Aviation Portfolio Manager of the Palestine Investment Fund, and acknowledged by Rasha Qawasmi, the Head of Finance. Other papers show that the transaction involved the United Overseas Bank of Singapore and Jet Aviation, a subsidiary of General Dynamics, and, intriguingly, a company called AGAMC of Aruba in the Dutch Caribbean.
Informed that The Independent had read these documents, the Palestine Investment Fund chose to make no formal comment on the papers. But a Palestinian official “familiar with the deal” – as journalistic shorthand puts it – said that the “State of Palestine” had owned an official plane for several years, “since the days of the late President Yasser Arafat”. The official aircraft was always registered under a Palestine Investment Fund company which was “registered outside of Palestine for practical, operational, security and logistical reasons”. Most world capitals, the official told The Independent, “grant the President of the State of Palestine VIP status.”
Security and “operational communications” prevent the use of commercial flights and “renting planes for official flights becomes a more expensive option than having an official aircraft… The relationship between the Palestine Investment Fund subsidiary which owns the official plane and the State of Palestine is detailed in a formal agreement which functions in accordance with established legal procedures…”
A year ago, according to the same Palestinian, the Palestinian presidential jet began to experience “a series of technical problems” and maintenance staff advised a replacement. The fund “was asked to help in securing the financing of the aircraft through financial institutions so the state can pay in instalments”. In other words, the PIF was a financial intermediary. Its procedures and those of its subsidiaries – inside and outside “Palestine” – are subject, says the Palestinian official, “to scrutiny by the most reputable international auditors in accordance with the highest standards of transparency”.
It’s a pity for the Palestinians, of course, that they did not choose to mention the purchase of the new jet last year, long before the Trump-Abbas relationship collapsed – and prior to Trump’s monumentally foolish claim that Jerusalem was the “capital” of Israel. The Israelis were thus able to present the Abbas aircraft deal as something concocted only when Palestinians would face, in the words of the PLO’s secretary general Saeb Erekat, “starvation”. Erekat later told Washington’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley to “shut up” after accusing her of calling for “the overthrowing [of] the democratically elected Palestinian president”.
Alas, Abbas may have been “democratically elected” to a four-year presidency in 2005, but he’s now entering the 14th year of a presidency so out of touch with democracy that he last year issued a cyber-crime law which doles out a year’s imprisonment for anyone with a website which “aims to publish news that would endanger the integrity of the Palestinian state” or “public order”. In the words of Roger Cohen, one of the fairest commentators of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Abbas’s administration is seen as a corrupt gerontocracy, “inept, remote, self-serving and ever more authoritarian”.
He is right. Which is why I turned to a well-known Palestinian of rock-hard integrity – yes, they do exist – for a reaction to the Abbas plane purchase. “In the past, Arafat had his own plane,” this figure said. “It was given to him. But the Arabs don’t give these things any more. Abbas is the president and he can’t just buy a ticket and fly a commercial flight. Renting a plane is very expensive. The timing is unfortunate [sic], but the funds didn’t come from any assistance programme. He needs an aircraft, a reliable plane. We don’t have an airline and we don’t even have an airport. You can’t compare this with Netanyahu.”
Indeed not. For Netanyahu can avail himself – until his own new jet becomes available – of Israel’s international airline, El Al. And he only has to travel for half an hour to board an aircraft at Tel Aviv Ben Gurian international airport. The Palestinians have no airline. Their only airport – at Gaza – was funded by Germany, Spain, Japan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. It was blown to bits by Israeli fighter-bombers in 2001, after the beginning of the second Palestinian “intifada”. The world condemned its destruction by Israel. It cost $86m – $38 million more than Abbas’ new jet.