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Friday, Aug 12, 2022

The United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are very close to completing the deal on the Red Sea islands

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Saudi Arabia will signs an agreement with Egypt, pledges to the United States security arrangements and safeguard Israeli freedom of navigation in the Straits of Tiran; the United States will give Israel guarantees for Saudi commitments. The trick here was how Saudi Arabia can sign an agreement with Israel without having diplomatic relationships with Israel. There is no disagreement of substance.

Diplomats and lawyers from the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are working on a complex choreography of agreements, understandings and letters that will allow a deal around two strategic Red Sea islands to be inked ahead of President Biden's visit to the Middle East next month.

The deal would be a significant foreign policy achievement for the Biden administration in the Middle East and could open the way for a gradual warming of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

But because Saudi Arabia and Israel don’t have diplomatic relations and can’t sign official bilateral agreements directly, the countries involved are trying to use creative legal and diplomatic solutions to try to indirectly finalize a deal.

Under the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir must be a demilitarized zone and have the presence of a force of multinational observers led by the United States.

Despite public protests in Egypt, the Egyptian parliament in June 2017 and the country's supreme court in March 2018 approved a deal to transfer sovereignty back to Saudi Arabia.

But the deal needed buy-in from Israel because of the 1979 peace treaty. Israel gave in principle its approval to transfer the islands back to Saudi Arabia pending an agreement between Cairo and Riyadh on continuing the work of the multinational force of observers who are in charge of patrolling the islands and ensuring that freedom of navigation in the strait remains unhindered.

The Biden administration for months has been quietly mediating among Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt on a deal that will finalize the transfer of the islands from Egypt to Saudi control.

At the center of the mediation efforts is the issue of how to meet the Saudi demand that the U.S.-led multinational force leave the islands while maintaining the same security arrangements and political commitments the Israelis need.

Israeli officials want to make sure any commitment the Egyptians made in their peace agreement with Israel is still binding for the Saudis, especially the agreement to allow Israeli ships through the Straits of Tiran.

The Saudis agreed to uphold Egyptian commitments including freedom of navigation.


Behind the scenes

Outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, incoming Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz were briefed in recent days about the proposed approach.

The trick here was how Saudi Arabia can sign an agreement with Israel without having diplomatic relationships with Israel.  There is no disagreement of substance. The key issue is how to do it in a way that everybody feels comfortable with politically.

Under the approach, Saudi Arabia would sign an agreement with Egypt and send a letter to the U.S. as the guarantor stating its commitments. The U.S. would then give Israel a letter with guarantees, mainly on the issue of freedom of navigation.

The approach has not been finalized, but the parties are getting close to an agreement.

A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said that the U.S. "has long played an important role in promoting Red Sea security and stability. We have no comment on these particular reports.”

Separately from the island deal, Saudi Arabia is expected to allow Israeli airlines to use Saudi airspace for eastbound flights to India and China.

Another issue that is still under discussion ahead of Biden’s visit is the possibility of direct charter flights to Saudi Arabia for Muslim Israeli pilgrims.

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