US ‘negotiating deal between Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt’

(MEE MAP)

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  / May 24, 2022

The agreement to finalize transfer of two strategic Red Sea islands from Cairo to Riyadh could create warm ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The United States is secretly brokering talks between Saudi ArabiaIsrael and Egypt over the transfer of two strategic Red Sea islands to Riyadh, Israeli news outlet Walla reported on Wednesday. 

Talks are ongoing to finalize the deal, which could see security arrangements agreed upon between Israel and Saudi Arabia and create warm ties between the two countries for the first time ever, sources told Walla. 

Saudi Arabia has historically refused to set up diplomatic ties with Israel before a just resolution is found for Palestinians. 

The negotiations, spearheaded by White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk, aim to formalize the transfer of Tiran and Sanafir islands – strategically located at the sea passage to the ports of Aqaba in Jordan and Eilat in Israel – from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.  

The islands were occupied by Israel in 1967 during June War, before being handed back to Egyptian control in 1982 when the two sides signed the Camp David peace accords.

Saudi Arabia has long claimed ownership of the islands and said Egypt controlled them since 1950 for protection at the request of Riyadh. 

In 2018, Egypt’s Supreme Court approved a deal between the two countries that ceded the islands to Saudi Arabia despite public anger against the move. 

However, the transfer was pending an agreement over the fate of a multinational force of observers – set up as part of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty – who ensured freedom of navigation at the strait. 

Saudi Arabia wants to end the work of the multinational force but promised to keep it demilitarized and ensure freedom of navigation. 

According to the Walla report, Israel requested alternative security arrangements to end the work of the force.

Israel also asked that Saudi Arabia allow it to use its airspace to shorten flights to India, Thailand and China. 

It also wants Saudi Arabia to allow direct flights between the two countries for those who want to perform pilgrimage to Mecca. 

The US is pushing for an agreement to be reached before the end of June ahead of a planned Middle East tour by President Joe Biden, which will include a stop in Israel and potentially Saudi Arabia

Biden campaigned on making Saudi a “pariah” state and signed off on the release of a CIA document that blamed the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, for the murder of Washington Post and Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi. 

Arab-Israeli normalization 

Wednesday’s report comes against the backdrop of a normalization push by the US between Israel and several Arab states.

In 2020, Israel signed deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, in what became known as the Abraham Accords.

In a column published in the Wall Street Journal in March 2021, former White House adviser Jared Kushner – who played a crucial role in the normalization deals – wrote that normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel was “in sight”, proclaiming that “we are witnessing the last vestiges of what has been known as the Arab-Israeli conflict”. 

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said during a CNN interview a month later that a normalization deal with Israel would be “extremely helpful” and bring “tremendous benefits” to the Middle East, but said it couldn’t happen without addressing “the issue of the Palestinians”. 

Saudi officials have repeatedly said the kingdom remained committed to the Arab Peace Initiative, which conditions recognizing Israel on the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.

However, in November 2020, Saudi Arabia’s MBS met secretly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the kingdom, according to several Israeli media reports at the time.

Touted by former president Donald Trump and his aides as a great diplomatic achievement, the normalization deals between Arab states and Israel did not solve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and none of the normalizing Arab countries had ever been at war with Israel. 

Israel continues to build and expand settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories in what amounts to de-facto annexation of the land on which a future Palestinian state would be established.