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Biden: Opening airspace 1st tangible step to normalization

US to remove Red Sea island observer force, advancing steps toward Saudi-Israel ties

Move marks another foreign policy win for president, hours after he landed in Jeddah for controversial courting of oil-rich kingdom; direct Israel flights still under discussion

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

US President Joe Biden (C-L) takes part in a working session with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman  (C-R) at the Al Salam Royal Palace in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah, on July 15, 2022. (Mandel NGAN / AFP)
US President Joe Biden (C-L) takes part in a working session with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C-R) at the Al Salam Royal Palace in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah, on July 15, 2022. (Mandel NGAN / AFP)

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — US President Joe Biden on Friday announced the planned withdrawal of a multinational observer force that has secured a pair of Red Sea islands for over forty years. This will allow their transfer from Egypt to Saudi Arabia in a US-brokered agreement that includes steps by Riyadh toward normalizing ties with Israel.

US troops and other foreign soldiers have served on one of those islands, Tiran, since the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt, but will leave by the end of the year, Biden said hours after his arrival here on a direct flight from Israel.

“We’ve concluded a historic deal to transform a flashpoint at the heart of the Middle East wars into an area of peace,” the president declared. “Now as a result of this breakthrough, this island will be open to tourism and economic development while retaining all necessary security arrangements and the present freedom of navigation of all parties, including Israel.”

Saudi Arabia has for years sought sovereignty over the islands in order to develop them as a tourist zone, and Egypt agreed to relinquish them, but Israel’s approval was needed for the transfer to go through.

Tiran and Sanafir were previously held by Israel, which agreed to transfer them to Egypt as part of their 1979 peace treaty on the grounds that a multinational observer force be stationed there and that it would receive assurances for freedom of transport around the islands.

While Saudi refused to allow the observer force to remain in Tiran, it did agree to provide assurances to Israel regarding freedom of transport, which along with progress on a pair of other steps toward normalization with the Jewish state were enough to convince Jerusalem to sign off on the agreement brokered by the Biden administration over the past several months.

US President Joe Biden speaks after taking part in a working session with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince at the Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, on July 15, 2022. (MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

The first of those two steps was announced on Thursday night, hours before Biden arrived in Jeddah where he met with Saudi leaders on Friday evening: The Saudi Authority of Civil Aviation said it had decided to open its airspace to all air carriers, in a move meant to allow overflights by Israeli planes traveling to and from India and China.

In a speech late Friday night after a pair of bilateral meetings with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Biden called the overflights decision by Riyadh “a big deal, not only symbolically but substantively.”

“This is the first tangible step on the path of what I hope will eventually be a broader normalization of relations” between Israel and Saudi Arabia, he added.

The US confirmed the second step publicly for the first time Friday night while indicating that it had run into complications finalizing the measure in time for Biden’s trip. As a result, the White House sufficed by saying that Biden “welcomed related steps under discussion to include direct flights from Israel to Jeddah for next year’s Hajj on approved carriers.”

Because the next Hajj is not until late June 2023, the sides will have plenty of time to finalize talks on this matter beforehand.

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)

Biden’s announcement came after he finished a pair of highly anticipated meetings with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS, at the Al Salam Royal Palace in Jeddah.

Biden has come under fire for an apparent about-face in his policy toward Saudi Arabia, which he pledged as a candidate to treat as a “pariah” over its human rights record.

In recent months, the US has sought to court Riyadh in an effort to build a united front against Russia and to convince the Gulf kingdom to pump more oil to help lower gas prices in the US and decrease European dependence on Russian crude.

US media was particularly focused on whether Biden would shake the crown prince’s hand upon arrival at the palace for the bilateral meetings. The US president sufficed with a fist bump, as he did with Israeli leaders upon deplaning at Ben Gurion Airport two days earlier.

Biden has said a goal of the trip was to advance Israel’s integration in the region and the successful brokering of the island transfer would give him a foreign policy win that the White House hopes will overshadow talk of the apparent policy reversal on Riyadh.

In this photo released by Saudi Press Agency (SPA), Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, greets President Joe Biden, with a fist bump after his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 15, 2022. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

While Israel has intensified its efforts to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia since the signing of the Abraham Accords normalization agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco in 2020, Riyadh has long made clear that it will not formally recognize Israel without a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The rise of MBS, who is seen as further removed from the Palestinian cause, has slowly drifted Riyadh away from its historical position, but it will likely hold as long as the more traditionally pro-Palestinian King Salman is in the picture.

Salman is 86 years old and is rumored to be in poor health; he is believed to have largely relinquished rulership duties to his son, who decided to move the island transfer forward after years of paralysis.

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