Israel gave written approval to the Egyptian transfer of the Red Sea islands of Sanafir and Tiran to Saudi Arabia, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon revealed Tuesday.
His acknowledgement, given in a briefing with reporters Tuesday, hints at growing, though quiet, Israeli-Saudi cooperation in recent years.
According to Ya’alon, Israel was told in writing about the island transfer between Cairo and Riyadh, which came as part of a series of cooperation agreements signed last week between Saudi King Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo. The Cairo-Riyadh agreements cement the alliance of the two Sunni Arab states in a region undergoing chaotic change and facing the growing sway of Shiite Iran to the east.
“An appeal was made to us – and it needed our agreement, the Americans who were involved in the peace agreement and of the MFO,” Yaalon said, referring to the Multinational Force and Observers peacekeeping forces at the Israeli-Egyptian border. “We reached an agreement between the four parties – the Saudis, the Egyptians, Israel and the United States – to transfer the responsibility for the islands, on condition that the Saudis fill in the Egyptians’ shoes in the military appendix of the (Egypt-Israel) peace agreement.”
The raft of agreements also includes some $16 billion in Saudi investments in the ailing Egyptian economy.
The two Red Sea islands figure prominently in the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement signed in 1979, which promises safe passage to Israeli civilian and military ships through the narrow waterways of the Straits of Tiran. The Egyptian blockade of the waterway to Israeli shipping in 1967 was a key casus belli for Israel that led to the onset of the Six Day War.
Under the Egyptian-Saudi agreement, the islands are to be transferred to Saudi control in 25 years, giving Riyadh a direct hand in ensuring the fulfillment of the peace treaty with Israel.
Saudi officials in recent days said they were committed to “all Egyptian commitments” related to the islands. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in an interview that his country would honor the Israel-Egypt peace treaty’s terms as regards the islands. Saudi Arabia won’t negotiate with Israel about the islands, he said, since “the commitments that Egypt approved [in the peace treaty] we are also committed to, including the stationing of an international force on the islands. We looked into the matter and we know our legal position. We are committed to what Egypt committed to before the international community.”
But according to Ya’alon, the coordination with Israel went further. Saudi Arabia agreed to ensure free shipping for all parties through the straits. Israel was notified in writing about the new arrangement weeks before it was made public, and gave its approval in writing to Egypt and, indirectly, to Saudi Arabia.
Israel also agreed to the construction of a bridge between the islands and the Egyptian and Saudi mainlands.
Israel’s agreement to the transfer necessitated a reopening of the military appendix to the peace treaty, Ya’alon said. The discussions between all three parties were facilitated by the US, the defense minister noted, according to the Ynet news site.
The Straits of Tiran are Israel’s only water passage from Eilat to the open sea, allowing for shipping to and from Africa and Asia without requiring passage through the Suez Canal, as well as passage to and from the Suez Canal. Israel Navy ships use the waterway to reach open seas, where they carry out naval exercises that are not possible in the narrow confines of the Gulf of Aqaba.
In the briefing Tuesday, Ya’alon also addressed the security situation in Gaza.
Hamas, the terror group that rules the coastal territory, is “deterred” by Israel, “and therefore doesn’t act against us. But it is building its strength,” he said.
Ya’alon said there was “no siege on Gaza, but there is a security closure in which we forbid the import of dual-use materials that could be used to create rockets. Gaza merchants important goods from abroad through the ports of Ashdod [in Israel], Port Said and Alexandria [in Egypt].”
While Hamas was choosing not to attack Israel, the group “is growing stronger,” the defense minister said. “Its main challenge is to smuggle weaponry, since the smuggling route through Sudan no longer exists, but the route from Libya to Sinai is still open. Hamas is also growing stronger when it comes to development and construction of unmanned aircraft, with funding and expertise from Iran, and in the improvement of its naval forces that can penetrate [into Israel] from the beach.”
JTA contributed to this report.