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Deal will grant Israeli flights access to Saudi airspace

US aims to close island transfer, Saudi normalization steps before Biden trip

Mideast diplomat says unclear whether deal will be done in time for Biden visit, as Jerusalem and Riyadh don’t have formal ties, and latter hesitant to put agreement in writing

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

This photo taken on January 14, 2014, through the window of an airplane, shows the Red Sea's Tiran (foreground) and the Sanafir (background) islands in the Strait of Tiran between Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia. (Stringer/AFP)
This photo taken on January 14, 2014, through the window of an airplane, shows the Red Sea's Tiran (foreground) and the Sanafir (background) islands in the Strait of Tiran between Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia. (Stringer/AFP)

The US is working to finalize the transfer of a pair of Red Sea islands from Egyptian to Saudi control in an agreement that would see Riyadh take a series of steps to normalize ties with Israel, an Arab diplomat told The Times of Israel.

The normalization measures would include Saudi Arabia opening its airspace to Israeli flights to the Far East in addition to rolling out direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims, the Middle East diplomat said, confirming reporting in the Axios news site.

The US is seeking to finalize the agreement in time for Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, where he will participate in a summit with the leaders of nine Arab countries. The US National Security Council’s Middle East director Brett McGurk flew to Saudi Arabia this week in a last-ditch effort to close the deal in time, but it was unclear whether he would succeed or if the announcement would have to wait until after Biden’s trip, the Arab diplomat said.

Israel handed over control of the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Egypt as part of their 1979 peace agreement, but the sides agreed to demilitarize the islands and to allow the presence of a multinational observer force. Israel is now seeking similar assurances from Saudi Arabia in order to sign off on the deal, but Riyadh has been hesitant to put the commitment in writing, the diplomat said. The deal is also legally complex because the countries do not maintain official ties and therefore are working through conduits.

Biden will be in Saudi Arabia July 15-17 to attend a summit with nine other leaders of regional Arab states. He has said one of the goals for the trip is to expand Israel’s integration into the region.

However, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides told the Haaretz podcast last week that the US will not be announcing a full normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia any time soon.

A senior US official told The Times of Israel on Wednesday that the administration won’t be announcing a normalization agreement between Israel and any other country either.

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