These small Red Sea islands could help normalize Israeli-Saudi relations

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WASHINGTON – Pushing forward normalization steps between Israel and Saudi Arabia during his upcoming Middle East trip will be a major diplomatic achievement for U.S. President Joe Biden, says Dan Shapiro, who worked until recently on Mideast policy in the Biden administration.

Earlier this week, news website Axios reported that the White House is mediating a potential diplomatic deal involving Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt. The deal would involve finalizing the transfer of two islands in the Red Sea from Egyptian to Saudi control and, at a later stage, initiating normalization steps between Riyadh and Jerusalem, such as direct flights between the two countries.

“Resolving the status of the Red Sea islands would be an important building block of trust between Israel and Saudi Arabia as they inch toward fully normalized relations,” explains Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel who left the Biden administration in March and is currently a distinguished fellow at the D.C.-based Atlantic Council.

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He adds that any breakthrough would first require dialogue to overcome existing tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia. “If Washington and Riyadh can work out a set of understandings on their respective core strategic interests – Russia, China and oil production on the U.S. side; Iran, its proxies and the U.S. commitment to the Middle East on the Saudi side – a visit by President Biden to Saudi Arabia will be very worthwhile, even though it won’t solve everything,” he says.

The reported mediation attempts come on top of reports that Biden is mulling a visit to Saudi Arabia next month, during a Middle East trip that will also include a stop in Israel. If the Saudi trip takes place, it would be Biden’s first in-person meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He is a leader Biden has strongly criticized in the past but has to work with now amid rising oil prices – an issue that could play a key role in the upcoming U.S. midterm elections. Biden wants Saudi Arabia to significantly increase oil production to quell soaring prices caused by the war in Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden boarding Air Force One as he leaves Japan on Tuesday.Eugene Hoshiko/AP

‘Sensitive topic’

The deal being put together by the White House focuses on the transfer of the Tiran and Sanafir islands in the Red Sea from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty. Saudi Arabia had control of both islands until 1950, when Riyadh handed them over to Cairo for fear that Israel would seize them. Israel did capture the islands in 1967, but returned them to Egypt in 1982 as part of its withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula.

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In 2017, Egypt and Saudi Arabia agreed that the islands would be returned to Riyadh – a move that was approved by the Egyptian parliament and Supreme Court. It also required Israeli approval, due to the terms of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Israel gave its tacit approval, pending an Egyptian-Saudi agreement to allow U.S.-led multinational observers to continue their oversight of the islands while ensuring freedom of navigation for vessels en route to Israel’s port city of Eilat. That agreement has been stuck for the past four years as final status issues have remained unresolved.

“This is still a bit of a sensitive topic for some in Egypt, but the issue is done and the transfer is complete. This is not primarily aimed at Egypt and much more so at Saudi Arabia,” says International Crisis Group U.S. Program Director Michael Wahid Hanna.

He says recent U.S. engagement suggests a broader effort to address the concerns of America’s regional partners. “For the Saudis, a resolution of the issue would be welcome as it would formalize their sovereignty and administration of the islands,” Hanna notes.

Israel took the two islands during the Six-Day War and held them until 1982, when it returned them to Egypt as part of a peace treaty.Yaakov Agor / GPO

Perhaps most importantly in the Israeli context, the formal transfer of the islands would be considered the biggest step to date toward Israeli-Saudi normalization. Over recent months, the Biden administration has embraced the Abraham Accords as a regional priority – most recently demonstrated by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s participation in the Negev Summit in March, which was attended by the foreign ministers of Israel, Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Aside from the diplomatic achievement, mediating a three-way agreement between Riyadh, Cairo and Jerusalem would also represent a change in Biden’s approach to the current Saudi leadership.

Before entering office, he vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state, and attacked Crown Prince Mohammed for his involvement in the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

However, the new realities created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, global oil prices and inflation in the United States could force the president to drop the “pariah” pledge in favor of closer ties with the Saudis. This, in turn, could lead to criticism from those Democratic lawmakers who have been urging Biden to follow through on his vow to adopt a tougher approach.

The foreign ministers of Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates at the Negev Summit in March, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.JACQUELYN MARTIN – AFP

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