The islands of Tiran and Sanafir are two tiny specks of land located at the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba. “These are very small, entirely uninhabited pieces of land. There’s absolutely nothing there,” Yitzhak Levanon, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, said Wednesday in Jerusalem.
And yet, the islands continue to make headlines. In the last 70 years, they have changed hands nearly half a dozen times. This week, Tiran and Sanafir — which historically belong to Saudi Arabia but since 1950 were ruled by Egypt and twice captured by Israel — were in the news again as Cairo agreed to hand them back to Riyadh in exchange for the creation of a $16-billion investment fund.
Given that the islands are in a strategically crucial location for Israel, it was significant that officials in Jerusalem were quick to assert that they were unperturbed about the deal.
Riyadh gave Jerusalem written assurances that it intends to respect Israel’s rights to free passage through the Strait of Tiran, a crucial lifeline to Israel’s only Red Sea port in Eilat, officials said. Equally noteworthy is the fact that the deal was only struck after an agreement was reached between all four major stakeholders — Cairo, Riyadh, Washington, and Jerusalem.
“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 [1979 Israel-Egypt] peace agreement,” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon told reporters Tuesday.
That annex ensured “the freedom of navigation through the Strait of Tiran” and stipulated that only United Nations forces and Egyptian civil police will be allowed to be stationed on the two islands.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir last week vowed that there would be “no direct relationship between the kingdom and Israel due to the return of these islands,” but the mere fact that Jerusalem was party to a multilateral negotiation process including the Saudis is a telling sign.
Indeed, the fact that Israel — which officially still considers Saudi Arabia an enemy state (and vice-versa), despite growing yet still clandestine security cooperation — received a benevolent missive from the kingdom is, from an Israeli perspective, probably the most significant aspect of this deal.
“Officially, Riyadh still opposes formal relations with Israel, but both countries obviously share similar views on key issues such as the threat posed by Iran,” noted Simon Henderson, the director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The latest development in the Straits of Tiran suggests that their agenda of common interests is broadening.”
Israeli leaders, foremost among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have long hailed the unspoken detente between the Jewish state and the Sunni Arab nations. It is the Middle East’s worst-kept secret that Israel and moderate Sunni Arabs have a common enemy in Shiite Iran and extremist Sunni terrorist groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
The multilateral agreement over the two islands, and the open talk of a reassuring letter the Saudis sent to Israel, is the most tangible evidence yet for the undeclared alliance.
The agreement will not take effect before the year 2080
On the ground, nothing will change anytime soon. The agreement to transfer control over the two islands must first be ratified by the parliament in Cairo, and once signed and sealed, will not come into effect for 65 years, according to Egyptian media. In other words, the status quo will be with us for the foreseeable future. And who knows what the Middle East will look like in 2081?
It is unclear whether Israeli vessels would enter Egyptian or Saudi territorial waters as they cross the Strait of Tiran, which is only a few kilometers wide. But since the kingdom is fully committed to the terms of the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, Jerusalem clearly feels it has very little to worry about.
According to article V of the peace treaty between Jerusalem and Cairo, the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba are considered international waterways “open to all nations for unimpeded and non-suspendable freedom of navigation and overflight.” Both countries pledged to “respect each other’s right to navigation and overflight for access to either country” through the strait and the gulf.
“Israel has no reason to be concerned, despite the islands’ strategic importance, as Saudi Arabia has not been involved in previous wars with Israel and has no incentive to threaten it,” asserted Elie Podeh, a board member of Mitvim – Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Hebrew University.
If, for whatever reason, Saudi Arabia decided to block the strait, Israel’s military could act within minutes to restore the ability of vessels to reach the port of Eilat.
Even if today no concrete threat emanates from Tiran and Sanafir, the two islands have an important place in Israeli military history. Israel captured them during the 1956 Sinai campaign, but was forced to return them to Egypt due to international pressure.
The US, France and Britain guaranteed Israel at the time that if Cairo were to ever close the strait to Israeli ships, Jerusalem would have a right to respond militarily. The three countries even pledged to send help to defend Israel. But when Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the strait for Israeli vessels on May 23, 1967, triggering the Six Day War, Israel was on its own. During the course of the war, Israel recaptured the islands and subsequently kept a permanent military presence there (though not more than a handful of soldiers) until they were returned 15 years later in the framework of the peace agreement.
“For people my age, the first connotation of Tiran and Sanafir is war,” said Levanon, 71, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Egypt from 2009 to 2011. “But this is not the case these days, because the situation in the Middle East has changed.”