The administration of US President Joe Biden is “calmly” mediating between Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt regarding the completion of the transfer of the strategic islands of Tiran and Sanafir in the Red Sea from Egyptian sovereignty to Saudi sovereignty, according to 5 American and Israeli sources who spoke to the American Axios website.
The website said that the agreement to transfer the two islands has not yet been completed, and that “sensitive” negotiations are underway, noting that the White House Coordinator for Middle East Affairs, Brett McGurk, is the main person in the current mediation efforts, according to American and Israeli sources.
The White House and the Israeli Prime Minister’s office declined to comment, and the Saudi and Egyptian embassies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The islands of Tiran and Sanafir lie at the entrance to the Strait of Tiran, the strategic passage close to the port of Aqaba in Jordan and Eilat in Israel.
The Strait of Tiran is the only waterway for Israel from the port of Eilat to the Red Sea, allowing Israeli goods to be shipped to and from Africa and Asia without the need to pass through the Suez Canal, according to “The Times of Israel”.
Saudi and Egyptian officials say that the kingdom granted Egypt control of the two islands in 1950 (in the midst of the Arab-Israeli conflict), before they became a demilitarized zone with the presence of a multinational observer force led by the United States, as part of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979 that stipulated the passage of Israeli military and civilian ships through the strait.
Axios stated that reaching an agreement on transferring dependency to Saudi Arabia could be a “first step” on the path to normalizing relations between the Kingdom and Israel, and could build trust between them and create an opening for warm relations between the two countries, which do not have official diplomatic relations.
Negotiations, if successful, could also reduce tensions between the Biden administration and Riyadh, according to the site.
The report considered that reaching an agreement would be the “most important achievement” of US foreign policy in the Middle East since the “Abraham Accords“.
The White House wants to reach an agreement before Biden’s upcoming visit to the Middle East at the end of June, which was recently talked about, which may include Saudi Arabia and a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to the sources.
Amid internal protests, the Egyptian parliament in June 2017 and the country’s Supreme Court in March 2018 approved a deal to transfer the two islands to the kingdom.
The government said that the islands were originally Saudi Arabia but that Egypt “leased” them in the 1950s.
In a statement, the managing editor of the Egyptian government newspaper Al-Ahram, Ashraf Abul-Hol, said that Egypt had issued a document recognizing Saudi sovereignty over the two islands and that they were only a Saudi “deposit”.
Concluding a new agreement on them requires approval from Israel due to the provisions of the peace treaty, and Israel has given its consent in principle to return them to the Kingdom until an agreement is reached between Cairo and Riyadh regarding the continuation of the work of the multinational observer force that patrols and ensures the continuation of freedom of navigation in the strait According to Axios.
However, the arrangements in this regard have not yet been finalized, with many outstanding issues remaining.
Axios sources said the main issue now is the multinational force.
In his statement, Sphinx indicated that the peace treaty arrangements regarding the two islands were established on the basis of Egypt’s sovereignty over them, which now needs an amendment in the treaty after the transfer of dependency, or the entry of Saudi Arabia into a peace agreement with Israel.
He added that the international forces were established on the basis of the conflict between Egypt and Israel, and now the matter needs to be negotiated between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and Washington may be able to conclude an agreement on the status of these forces.
Axios sources said that Saudi Arabia agreed to keep the two islands demilitarized and committed to maintaining complete freedom of navigation for all ships, but wanted to end the presence of monitors.
Israeli officials agreed to consider ending the presence of the multinational force, but requested alternative security arrangements that would achieve the same results, the sources said.
Two American and two Israeli sources told the American website that Israel also wants Saudi Arabia to take certain steps as part of broader efforts to reach an agreement on several issues.
The sources added that Israel asked the Kingdom to allow Israeli airlines to cross larger areas of Saudi airspace, which will shorten flights to India, Thailand and China significantly.