Saudis pledge to honor Israel peace terms for islands given by Egypt

Jerusalem reportedly kept informed of new agreement transferring authority over Gulf of Aqaba’s Sanafir and Tiran from Cairo to Riyadh

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Tiran Island in the Gulf of Aqaba. (CC BY 3.0/Wikipedia/Marc Ryckaert)
Tiran Island in the Gulf of Aqaba. (CC BY 3.0/Wikipedia/Marc Ryckaert)

A new agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over control of two islands in the Gulf of Aqaba has implications for the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, thus requiring Cairo to keep officials in Jerusalem informed of the developments.

The islands are mentioned in the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, and the Saudis are pledging to honor its terms — albeit while stressing that they will have no direct contact with Israel over the matter. Saudi Arabia is formally at war with Israel, but senior figures from the two countries have met in public on several recent occasions, and the countries have a shared concern in grappling with the regional danger posed by Iran.

The Hebrew-language Ynet website, citing the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, reported Monday that peace partners Egypt and Israel have been in contact recently over the plan to redraw the maritime border between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Specifically, Egyptian authorities notified Israel about a plan to transfer control of two Gulf of Aqaba islands, Sanafir and Tiran, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

The islands strategically lie at the opening of the Gulf of Aqaba into the Red Sea and their status was detailed in the terms of the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Israel’s seaport Eilat is located at the top of the gulf and is a major point of entry for goods into the country.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in an interview that his country would honor the 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.”

Israeli sources told Ynet that the Foreign Ministry has been examining the legality of the matter and the Defense Ministry is likewise reviewing the plan. The report confirmed the Egyptians have reassured Israel that the Saudis intend to honor the commitments that Cairo has under the peace treaty.

Al-Ahram reported that if Israel agrees with the islands’ transfer as planned by the Egyptians and the Saudis, it would entail changing details of the peace treaty and that will require a Knesset vote. But the Israeli sources noted that since the Saudis are also committed to its terms, there may be no need to change the treaty, Ynet said.

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Israel so far has not offered any objection to the plan.

Under the terms of the peace treaty, a multinational force is stationed on the islands to ensure they are demilitarized and to protect free movement of shipping in the gulf.

On Saturday Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Saudi King Salman, who is visiting Egypt, announced they had agreed to set up a $16 billion investment fund and settle a longstanding maritime dispute over the islands.

A day later, they announced a plan to build a bridge over the Red Sea to Egypt, and the heads of state met at the historic Abdeen Palace in Cairo to oversee the inking of a string of agreements Egypt hopes will help boost its battered economy.

In one of the most high-profile announcements, Cairo said it had agreed to demarcate its maritime borders with Saudi Arabia, officially placing the two islands in the Straits of Tiran in Saudi territory.

The Egyptian parliament must still vote on the plan to approve it.

The agreement announced by the cabinet on Saturday to settle the dispute over Tiran and Sanafir provoked an immediate backlash in Egypt, where thousands tweeted a hashtag accusing Sissi of selling the islands.

Tiran had historically been a Saudi island “leased” to Egypt in 1950.

AFP contributed to this report.

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