JERUSALEM, Israel – The US government is brokering talks between Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia that could be a step toward the Saudi kingdom officially normalizing ties with the Jewish state, Axios reported Monday.
The quiet negotiations involve finalizing the transfer of two strategic islands in the Red Sea from Egyptian sovereignty to Saudi Arabia, the report said.
The two Islands – named Tiran and Sanafir – originally belonged to Saudi Arabia, but the kingdom leased them to Egypt in the 1950s. When Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Egypt agreed to demilitarize the islands and allow the safe passage of Israeli civilian and military ships through the Straits of Tiran. Additionally, a multinational force of observers led by the United States was supposed to patrol the islands to ensure they remained demilitarized. However, this force was never established.
Despite public protests in 2017, Egypt approved a deal in 2018 during the Trump administration to transfer sovereignty back to Saudi Arabia. Israel gave its approval of the deal, but the arrangement was never finalized due to several unresolved issues.
The Biden administration hopes to finalize the agreement and secure a major Mideast policy win before the president visits the region at the end of June, which according to CNN, could include a visit to Saudi Arabia.
Israeli and American officials who spoke to Axios on condition of anonymity say the negotiations are sensitive and ongoing. Israeli officials are asking that Saudi Arabia take steps toward normalizing relations with the Jewish state – including the commencement of direct flights between Israel and the kingdom, and allowing more Israeli flights to cross Saudi airspace.
If successful, the agreement could be an important step toward Israel normalizing ties with Saudi Arabia. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel have blossomed under the shadow of the Abraham Accords which were brokered by the Trump administration. The accords are a series of normalization agreements Israel signed with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. However, the Saudi kingdom refused to join the accords until significant progress was made in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Still, Saudi Arabia made positive steps toward Israel after the accords were signed in 2020, namely by permitting Israel to use its airspace for flights to and from the UAE and Bahrain.
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The Biden administration believes an agreement on the strategic islands could build trust between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and open the door to full diplomatic relations. Both nations see Iran as a common enemy and Israel hopes that close ties with Saudi Arabia could be an important counter-balance against Tehran’s influence in the region.
According to the Axios report, the White House also hopes the island agreement could lower tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia. Biden has branded Saudi Arabia a "pariah" for its poor human rights record and the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. However, with the war in Ukraine straining the global economy, the US has found itself needing to rely on Saudi Arabia more to export crude oil.
CNN reports that Biden could meet with Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, during his trip to the Middle East next month. It would be the first visit between Biden and the crown prince.
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