June 2, 2022 | Insight

Israeli-Saudi Deal Over Two Islands Is a Step Toward Peace

June 2, 2022 | Insight

Israeli-Saudi Deal Over Two Islands Is a Step Toward Peace

Israel and Saudi Arabia have reportedly agreed on a security arrangement enabling Egypt to transfer to the Saudis two strategic islands near Israel. In return for Israel’s acquiescence, Saudi Arabia is set to allow Israeli airlines to fly more frequently over its airspace. The deal is expected to be announced by President Joe Biden during his trip to the Middle East at the end of June.

While the two islands — Tiran and Sanafir — have no civilian inhabitants or known natural resources, tensions related to their strategic location contributed to two Arab-Israeli wars. Now, they could provide a stepping-stone to Arab-Israeli and indeed Muslim-Israeli peace. To capitalize on this opportunity, the Biden administration should encourage Saudi Arabia to take additional, public steps toward peace with Israel. There are several specific steps the Saudis should take, both in relation to the island transfer and in other arenas.

Causes of War

Both Tiran and Sanafir are located in the Strait of Tiran, the narrow body of water connecting the Gulf of Eilat to the Red Sea. Whoever controls the islands can block maritime access to Israel’s port of Eilat and to Jordan’s only port, Aqaba. In contrast with Israel’s other ports, all located on the Mediterranean, Eilat is the only one from which ships can reach India and East Asia without sailing around the southern tip of Africa or transiting Egypt’s Suez Canal.

Egypt’s closures of the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping were a major cause of the 1956 and 1967 wars between the two countries. The 1956 war erupted after Egypt tightened its blockade of Israeli shipping through the strait and closed the airspace over it to Israel’s airlines, blocking the only feasible Israeli air route to Africa. This, combined with Egypt’s closure of the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping, spurred Israel to seize the Sinai Peninsula (plus the two islands) in October 1956.

Israel’s 1957 withdrawal from Sinai (and the two islands) was conditioned on placing UN peacekeepers near the strait. The United States affirmed Israel’s right to transit the strait, and Egypt issued a non-binding, indirect, unwritten, non-public, and ambiguous statement to a UN official that Egypt would not interfere with any commercial shipping to or from Eilat.

In May 1967, Egypt reneged, expelling the peacekeepers and once again blocking the strait. At the time, 90 percent of Israeli oil imports passed through it. President Lyndon B. Johnson commented that “if a single act of folly was more responsible for [the Six Day War] than any other, it was the arbitrary and dangerous announced decision that the Straits of Tiran would be closed.”

During the 1967 war, Israel again seized Tiran and Sanafir. The islands returned to Egypt only as part of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, which legally obligated Egypt to allow Israel “unimpeded and non-suspendable” navigation of the strait, limited Egypt’s military presence on the islands, and established a multinational peacekeeping force — eventually the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) — to help ensure “freedom of navigation through the Strait of Tiran.”

The Island Transfer Proposal

The Saudis now claim, and Egyptian President Abdul Fatah al-Sisi has stated, that Tiran and Sanafir have continuously belonged to Saudi Arabia. According to this version of history, Egyptian troops are said to have occupied the islands in 1950, and periodically thereafter, with Saudi permission because Egypt was considered more capable of defeating Israel militarily.

Yet Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979, and Saudi Arabia has inched closer to doing the same in recent years. In a sign of the two countries’ prioritization of national interests over lofty pan-Arabist goals, Cairo and Riyadh in 2017 agreed to transfer control of Tiran and Sanafir back to Saudi Arabia.

Sisi’s opponents responded by claiming the islands belong to Egypt, and accused him of ceding the islands in exchange for billions of dollars in Saudi trade and investment. Although protests erupted in Egypt against the proposed transfer, Sisi stuck with the plan.

Israel’s Role

The need for Israel to agree to the islands’ transfer to Saudi Arabia results from Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty obligations.

In April 2016, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stated in a media interview that Riyadh is “committed” to continuing Egypt’s approach to the islands. Riyadh has now reportedly agreed to unimpeded navigation and to limiting its military’s presence on the islands, but not to a continuation of the MFO presence. The newly agreed deal reportedly involves MFO monitoring from Egyptian soil several kilometers away.

Given the strategic and historical significance of Tiran and Sanafir, it is remarkable that Israel would even consider their transfer from Egypt, a peace partner with treaty obligations, to Saudi Arabia, which has yet to formally recognize Israel.

Options for Using the Island Transfer to Advance Normalization

Given Saudi Arabia’s wealth and custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites, it is the most important Arab country with which Israel could make peace. Israeli-Saudi peace would almost certainly spur progress with both the Palestinians and additional Arab or other Muslim countries.

The Saudis have in recent years reportedly been tip-toeing closer to normalization with Israel, including through confidential intelligence cooperation, greenlighting the Abraham Accords, and allowing Israeli businesspersons to visit the kingdom.

However, the Saudis have avoided major public steps toward peace with Israel. These would represent a higher stage of engagement, are typically harder to reverse, and would provide vital cover to others considering steps towards peace with Israel.

Reportedly, the only public step to which Riyadh agreed in exchange for the island transfer is to authorize more Israeli airliners to cross Saudi airspace en route to other destinations. Saudi Arabia was reportedly also considering allowing Israeli Muslim pilgrims to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia, but that was reportedly omitted from the final deal. Notably, Biden’s announcement of the deal will reportedly not include a public meeting between Israeli and Saudi officials.

In exchange for Saudi Arabia being given what are in essence the keys to Israel’s outlet to the Indian Ocean and most of Asia, Riyadh should be pushed to provide more in return, including public evidence that its attitude towards Israel has truly and sustainably changed. Indeed, Saudi Arabia should be strongly encouraged to move as close to normalization as possible with Israel. Full Saudi normalization would surpass in importance the Abraham Accords, the signal foreign policy achievement of Biden’s predecessor.

Biden’s proposed visit to Saudi Arabia at the end of the month would represent an improvement in U.S.-Saudi relations, which have been strained by disputes over human rights abuses, the Yemen war, and the Saudi murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. A public Biden administration report concluded the murder was approved by Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). As a presidential candidate, Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” A piqued Riyadh has reportedly refused U.S. requests to ramp up oil production in response to market pressures resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

MBS has reportedly told the Biden administration that improved U.S.-Saudi ties are a prerequisite for progress on Saudi-Israeli relations. If the United States is to bring MBS in from the cold and Israel allows Saudi Arabia to control Tiran and Sanafir, the Saudis should be willing to take public steps toward peace with Israel. The flourishing relationship between Israel and the United Arab Emirates has already provided the Saudis with examples of the many benefits of peace.

The United States and Israel should insist that the island transfer be accompanied by a public, legally binding, written Saudi commitment mirroring Egypt’s peace treaty obligations to limit its military presence and guarantee “unimpeded and non-suspendable” Israeli navigation of the Strait of Tiran. The Saudi foreign minister’s 2016 statement is all too reminiscent of the non-binding, indirect, unwritten, and ambiguous 1957 Egyptian affirmation of Israel’s rights, on which Cairo reneged in 1967.

In addition, Riyadh’s Tiran and Sanafir obligations should be made directly to Israel, which would represent an important step toward Saudi recognition of the Jewish state. The Biden administration should further urge that the island transfer be accompanied by establishment of an Egyptian-Israeli-Saudi mechanism to ensure that the three countries’ navies avoid friction while operating in close proximity near the islands. Such a mechanism can build on two of the Arab-Israeli regional security agreements that were agreed upon by Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and 13 Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, in 1994 at the height of the Oslo peace process but stalled because diplomacy collapsed soon thereafter.

For example, the parties adopted — but never implemented — an agreement on preventing incidents at sea and concluded text for a framework agreement on maritime search and rescue. The parties also reached — but never implemented — an agreement on prior notification of certain military activities. These agreements should be resuscitated, adapted as necessary, and then implemented. They could at first be implemented by Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia — specifically tailored to Tiran and Sanafir — and then expanded to other Arab signatories.

The Biden administration should also encourage public Saudi cooperation with Israel in the defense arena. This could include Saudi participation alongside Israel in U.S. and other allied military exercises and in multinational military task forces. A larger step would be for Saudi Arabia to participate with Israel — and presumably the United Arab Emirates — in sharing early warnings of attacks by Iranian ballistic and cruise missiles and drones.

Other steps that stop short of full diplomatic relations with Israel include liaison offices such as those upon which Israel and Morocco agreed in December 2020. Since then, the Israeli and Moroccan governments have signed numerous joint memoranda of understanding, creating frameworks for cooperation on issues including finance and investment, aviation, trade, defense, and science and technology cooperation in fields including agriculture, water management, and renewable energy.

Israel and Saudi Arabia could sign joint memoranda of understanding on some of the less sensitive issues, such as water management. They could also foster cooperation agreements between leading companies and amongst academic institutions.

Officials in Riyadh have often said that normalization with Israel is contingent on progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Biden administration should thus enlist Saudi involvement in strengthening the existing but underfunded multilateral scientific partnerships that benefit Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arab countries. These include the Middle East Consortium for Infectious Disease Surveillance and the Middle East Regional Cooperation Program.

Full peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia should be the ultimate goal. It may not be imminent, but the Biden administration can use Tiran and Sanafir as major stepping stones in that direction.

Orde F. Kittrie is a law professor at Arizona State University and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.  He previously served for over a decade at the U.S. State Department, including as Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs and as lead attorney for strategic trade controls.  FDD is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @OrdeFK.


Arab Politics Egypt Gulf States Israel Palestinian Politics