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US said brokering talks to transfer islands from Egypt to Saudi with Israeli backing

Israel’s approval needed since Egypt agreed in 1979 peace treaty to demilitarize Red Sea’s Tiran and Sanafir; Jerusalem asks Riyadh, in exchange, to take steps toward normalization

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 Biden administration is reportedly brokering talks aimed at finalizing the transfer of two Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia in an agreement Israel hopes will include steps by Riyadh toward normalizing ties with the Jewish state.

In 2017, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi ratified a treaty to hand over Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. The deal withstood protests and legal challenges in Egypt but was never finalized.

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.

As part of the 1979 peace deal, Egypt agreed to demilitarize the islands and allow the presence of a force of multinational observers led by the US to patrol them. Their transfer to Saudi Arabia, therefore, requires a degree of Israeli buy-in in order to move forward. Their transfer to Saudi Arabia, therefore, requires a degree of Israeli buy-in in order to move forward.

The island transfer, first announced in April 2016, had fueled rare protests in Egypt with opponents of Sissi accusing him of having traded the islands for Saudi largesse. The government said the islands were Saudi to begin with but were leased to Egypt in the 1950s.

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. 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.

US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Collage/AP)

Nonetheless, Israel offered its principled approval for the island transfer, while conditioning it on an agreed-upon solution regarding the multinational observer force, Axios reported Tuesday, citing US and Israeli sources.

The multinational squad turned into a main sticking point in the talks, as Riyadh agreed to keep the islands demilitarized while thus far rejecting such a force on its territory, Axios said. Riyadh instead offered a commitment to maintaining full freedom of navigation for ships through the Straits of Tiran.

Israeli negotiators showed willingness to forgo the multinational force but asked for alternative security arrangements, according to Axios.

Jerusalem is also asking that Saudi Arabia take a number of steps toward normalizing ties with the Jewish state — namely allowing additional Israeli flights to use Saudi airspace and allowing direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia to allow Muslims to easily travel to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina from Ben Gurion Airport.

After the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020, Saudi Arabia began allowing Israeli airlines to use its airspace for flights to and from the UAE and Bahrain. But Israel has not yet received such access for flights to India, Thailand and China, which are significantly longer as a result.

While Riyadh gave its blessing to client states UAE and Bahrain to normalize ties with Israel, it has refrained from taking the same step, saying it would not do so absent a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In this March 4, 2018 photo provided by Egypt’s state news agency, MENA, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, right, meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Cairo, Egypt. (Mohammed Samaha/MENA via AP)

The US believes an agreement on the islands could build trust between Israel and Saudi Arabia needed to take more far-reaching steps toward normalization.

The White House is hoping to broker an agreement before US President Joe Biden’s expected trip to the region late next month. A date has not been set, and the White House has only confirmed that the president will be coming to Israel, but CNN reported last week that US officials are seeking to organize a meeting between Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Axios said the White House and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office declined requests for comment on the report.

Washington has slowly sought to improve ties with Riyadh after Biden came down hard on the latter and its crown prince during his election campaign over the country’s human rights record and the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

But as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to rock the global energy market, the US is finding itself increasingly reliant on Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude oil exporter.

Biden’s trip is also slated to include a summit with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, several Arab sources told Axios.

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