The Biden administration has been quietly mediating an agreement between Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which if successful, will include concrete steps toward the normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Axios reported on Monday night
The report comes as preparations are being made for President Biden’s trip to Israel next month, which has been confirmed by the White House despite the fragile political situation in Israel. According to a CNN report last week, US officials are making efforts to arrange a stop for Biden in Saudi Arabia to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The background to the talks on a deal is an agreement signed between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in 2016 to transfer the islands of Tiran and Sanafir in the Red Sea to Saudi sovereignty.
The islands are in a strategic location for Israel as they control the Straits of Tiran, Israel’s only water passage from Eilat to the open sea. [The Six-Day War in 1967 began after Egypt blocked the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.]
In 2017, Israel tentatively approved the transfer of the islands to Saudi Arabia, subject to an agreement between Egpyt and Saudi Arabia on the continued operation of the presence of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) on the islands to guarantee the safe passage of Israeli ships through the Straits of Tiran, as required by the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace deal.
However, the issue was never fully settled as the Saudis insist on ending the presence of the MFO on the islands. The Biden administration is now trying to solve the issue. The
Saudis agreed to keep the islands demilitarized and commit to full sailing freedom for all ships. Israel agreed to consider ending the presence of international observers but is demanding alternative security arrangements.
Israel is also requesting that in return for its agreement to the transfer of the islands, Riyadh take steps toward the normalization of ties with Israel, specifically allowing Israeli flights to use Saudi airspace for flights to India, Thailand, and China, which would dramatically shorten the routes. Since the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, Saudi Arabia has granted use of its airspace for Israeli flights to the UAE and Bahrain but has not granted permission for other destinations.
Israel is also requesting that Riyadh allow direct flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimages of Israeli-Arabs to the cities of Mecca and Medina.
If an agreement is reached, it would be the most significant US foreign policy achievement in the Middle East since the signing of the Abraham Accords by the Trump administration.
The White House and the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the report.
(YWN Israel Desk – Jerusalem)