No written Saudi assurance over Tiran islands, Israeli official hints

Contradicting defense minister, senior official says such claims are ‘imprecise,’ yet stresses Israel did not object to the transaction

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

An Egyptian boat traversing the Strait of Tiran in 2011. (CC BY Don Toofee, Flickr)
An Egyptian boat traversing the Strait of Tiran in 2011. (CC BY Don Toofee, Flickr)

Jerusalem did not receive written assurances from Saudi Arabia regarding Israel’s right of free passage through the Gulf of Aqaba and the Strait of Tiran in the wake of a Saudi-Egyptian deal to swap ownership of two islands, a senior Israeli official indicated Monday.

The senior official, who is well versed in the matter but asked not to be identified by name, contradicted a statement made earlier this month by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who had told military correspondents in a briefing about the existence of such a document.

Two weeks ago, Cairo agreed to hand control over the two islands — Tiran and Sanafir — to Riyadh in exchange for the creation of a $16-billion investment fund.

Israel was updated and did not object to the deal, but asked by The Times of Israel to confirm Israel received a commitment to Israel in writing from Riyadh about Israel’s right of passage the for Israel strategically important Strait of Tiran, the senior official replied: “That’s not precise.”

However, he stressed that Israel’s right to cross these waters are an integral part of the 1979 peace treaty and noted that Saudi Foreign Ministry publicly committed to upkeep the agreement.

“There is an agreement and commitments that Egypt accepted related to these islands, and the kingdom is committed to these,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Egyptian television in an interview two weeks ago.

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He was apparently referring to the military annex of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which ensured Israel’s “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.

The Saudi foreign minister stressed in the same interview that there will be “no direct relationship between the kingdom and Israel due to the return of these islands.”

Whether Riyadh made a written commitment or not, Israeli officials and analysts agree that the deal does not pose any threat to Israel.

“I don’t see how the Saudi-Egyptian deal would harm our interests in any way,” the senior official said. “The world changes for the good, just as it changes for the bad.”

However, some Israelis demand Jerusalem require the Saudis state explicitly their intention not to infringe on Israel’s right to passage in the Gulf of Aqaba.

“I believe that Israel should ask the Saudis to make public statement on that issue,” said Yitzhak Levanon, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt. “What the Saudi foreign minister said in the interview is not enough. Saudi Arabia is not part of the peace agreement, and the fact that they declare support for it it not enough. Because tomorrow they can change their mind.”

At the very least, Israel should insist on a public statement from Riyadh spelling out Israel’s freedom of navigation in the strait and recognition that this is an international waterway, Levanon said.

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.

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.

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