Diplomats, direct flights to ease Israel-Qatar chill at World Cup
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel has sent diplomats to help its citizens attending the World Cup in Qatar and plans to launch temporary direct flights there on Sunday as the countries find a measure of accommodation for the soccer tournament despite having no formal relations.
Between 10,000 and 20,000 Israelis are expected at the month-long matches in the Gulf emirate, an unprecedented influx after years in which it admitted only low-key delegates.
Qatar is close to Iran and has hosted leaders of the Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas.
Having normalised ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020, the Israelis have suggested Qatar could follow if it tilts away from Tehran. Doha has ruled that out, saying Israel must first make way for a Palestinian state.
In a sign of easing ties, a delegation from Israel’s foreign ministry will be allowed to provide consular assistance from the Qatari capital for its citizens coming for the games.
The delegation’s spokesperson, Alon Lavi, said it was already working out of a Doha hotel, with duties that include advising Israelis about local laws and avoiding friction with rival fans.
“We are guests here, and there are many guests from many countries – including countries that we are, perhaps, less accustomed to being right up next to – and the rules here are ultimately more stringent,” he told Israel’s Army Radio.
Though alcohol will be permitted at select World Cup venues, a public service announcement by Lavi’s ministry counselled Israelis to avoid drink altogether in conservative Qatar.
“We do not have all of the infrastructure that perhaps other countries have, and certainly given that we don’t have diplomatic ties,” Lavi said. “Therefore the (potential) arrest of Israelis here is something that troubles us.”
FIFA announced last week that Qatar would admit the first direct flights from Israel for the World Cup, on which Palestinians could also travel.
Cyprus-based TUS Airways, a subsidiary of Israel’s Knafaim Holdings Ltd., said it expected final Qatari approval on Thursday to offer non-stop flights from Tel Aviv to Doha twice-weekly, possibly up to the final match.
The first plane would depart on Sunday ahead of the kick-off, said TUS chairman of the board Nimrod Borovitz, adding that most tickets were already sold, some with hotel packages.
He did not know how many Palestinians might be among the passengers, telling Reuters: “If they have permission to fly from Ben Gurion Airport they can fly with us.”
(Reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Bradley Perrett and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)