US will offer charter flights to help Americans leave Israel starting Friday

By David Shepardson and Steven Scheer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. State Department will begin offering charter flights to Europe to help Americans leave Israel if they want starting Friday, the White House said, after extensive talks with U.S. airlines and pressure from Congress.

Reuters reported details of the plan earlier.

The U.S. government will provide charter flights to cities in Europe, White House spokesman John Kirby said on Thursday. "We know there is a demand signal out there."

Expected routes include Tel Aviv to Athens, Reuters reported. It is unclear how long the offer will last but it might just a few days, airline officials said.

A State Department email seen by Reuters said it plans to offer transit options beginning on Friday "but it will take some period of time to schedule everyone seeking to depart."

" If you choose to take this departure assistance, transportation will be by air to Athens or Frankfurt, or sea from Haifa to Cyprus," it added.

Senate Majority Chuck Schumer praised the announcement but said "these transports must be increased as needed to ensure Americans in Israel who want to can return to the United States."

On Wednesday, United Airlines it would add two flights between Newark, New Jersey, and Athens in the coming days to help Americans trying to return home from Israel. The company said on Thursday it would add a third roundtrip. Delta Air Lines also said it would add flights to Athens in the coming days.

The email seen by Reuters said "Americans will be asked to sign an agreement to repay the U.S. government prior to departure and should be prepared to arrange your own lodging and onward travel from Greece, Germany or Cyprus to your final destination."

United, American Airlines

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Verma held discussions with U.S. airlines this week about the issue, sources told Reuters, adding he told them the U.S. government had received roughly 17,000 inquiries about travel assistance leaving Israel.

Earlier this week, nearly 150 lawmakers led by U.S. Representatives Grace Meng and Nicole Malliotakis sent a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the department "to use all tools at its disposal help get Americans out of Israel and back home to the United States."

(Reporting by David Shepardson and Steven Scheer; additional reporting by Rajesh Kumar Singh in Chicago; Editing by Richard Chang and Nick Zieminski)