Officials reach agreement on Red Sea islands between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt

Officials reach agreement on Red Sea islands between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt
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Graphic: Axios Images

Diplomats and lawyers from the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are working on a complex choreography of agreements, understandings and letters. agreement around two strategic Red Sea islands Three Israeli officials told me it would be signed ahead of President Biden’s visit to the Middle East next month.

Why is it important: The deal will be a major foreign policy achievement for the Biden administration in the Middle East and could pave the way for a gradual warming of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

  • However, since Saudi Arabia and Israel do not have diplomatic relations and cannot directly sign formal bilateral agreements, the countries involved are indirectly trying to use creative legal and diplomatic solutions to conclude an agreement.

Quickly catch: According to the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace agreement, the Red Sea islands Tirana and Sanafir should be a demilitarized zone and have the presence of a US-led multinational observer force.

  • Despite public protests in Egypt, Egyptians parliament in June 2017 and country’s supreme court In March 2018, it ratified an agreement to transfer sovereignty back to Saudi Arabia.
  • However, due to the 1979 peace agreement, the agreement had to be purchased from Israel. Israel gave in principle consent for the transfer The islands have returned to Saudi Arabia pending an agreement between Cairo and Riyadh to continue the work of the multinational observer force responsible for patrolling the islands and to ensure freedom of navigation in the strait remains unimpeded.

Where does it stand: The Biden administration has been quietly mediating for months between Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt on a deal that would result in the return of the islands from Egypt to Saudi control.

  • Central to mediation efforts is how to meet Saudi Arabia’s demand that the US-led multinational force maintain the same security arrangements and political commitments that the Israelis need as it leaves the islands. As Axios previously reported.
  • Israeli officials want to make sure that any commitments the Egyptians made in their peace deal with Israel, particularly the agreement to allow Israeli ships to pass through the Strait of Tiran, are still binding on the Saudis.
  • Two senior Israeli officials said the Saudis had agreed to honor Egypt’s commitments, including freedom of navigation.

Behind the scenes: Israeli officials said that outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, incoming Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz were briefed on the proposed approach in recent days.

  • Two senior Israeli officials said that as part of this approach, Saudi Arabia will sign an agreement with Egypt and send a letter to the United States as a guarantor stating its commitments. The US would then give Israel a guaranteed letter, mainly on freedom of navigation.

  • An Israeli official emphasized that the approach has not been finalized, but that the parties are approaching an agreement.
  • A spokesman for the White House National Security Council said the United States “has long played an important role in promoting the security and stability of the Red Sea.” We do not comment on these special reports.
  • The Saudi and Egyptian embassies in the US did not respond to requests for comment.

Game Status: A senior Israeli official told me that Gantz and the Israeli defense agency felt comfortable with the proposed approach and thought that Israel’s security interests would be secured.

  • A senior Israeli official told me, “The trick here was how Saudi Arabia could sign a deal with Israel without signing a deal with Israel. There is no disagreement in substance.”
  • “The real issue is how to do this in a way that everyone feels politically comfortable with,” he added.

Big picture: Apart from the island deal, Saudi Arabia is expected to allow Israeli airlines to use Saudi airspace for eastern flights to India and China. reported last week.

  • Officials added that another issue still under discussion ahead of Biden’s visit is the possibility of direct charter flights to Saudi Arabia for Muslim Israeli pilgrims.

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