Jul 14, 2022 - World

Scoop: Israel OKs Red Sea islands deal, paving way for Saudi normalization steps

President Biden shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

President Biden shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

The Israeli government on Thursday approved the parameters of a deal around two strategic Red Sea islands that would pave the way for Saudi Arabia to take steps toward normalizing relations with Israel.

Why it matters: The deal, which the U.S. has been quietly negotiating for months, would be a significant foreign policy achievement for the Biden administration in the Middle East.

  • The deal will also make possible a separate agreement with Saudi Arabia allowing Israeli airlines to use its air space for eastbound flights to India and China, as well as allowing direct charter flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims who want to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, as Axios previously reported.
  • Israeli officials said these steps are expected to be announced during President Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia over the weekend.

Driving the news: The Israeli officials said Israel gave the green light for the Red Sea islands deal to the U.S. on Thursday. The parameters of the deal over the Tiran and Sanafir islands were approved by the Israeli Prime Minister's Office, the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Defense, the Israeli officials said.

  • The deal includes moving multilateral forces of observers currently on Tiran and Sanafir to new positions in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, as well as installing cameras to monitor activity on the islands and the Strait of Tiran, per the officials.
  • As part of the deal, Saudi Arabia will pledge to the U.S. that it will adhere to the commitments of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace agreement, mainly maintaining the freedom of navigation in the Strait of Tiran for Israeli ships, as Axios previously reported.
  • The U.S. will give Israel security guarantees about the freedom of navigation based on Saudi commitments.

What they're saying: President Biden said Thursday during a press conference with acting Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid in Jerusalem that he is “optimistic” about possible steps to normalize Saudi Arabia's relationship with Israel.

  • The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.
Tiran and Sanafir Islands
Chart: Axios Visuals

Catch up quick: 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 the sovereignty of the islands back to Saudi Arabia.

  • But the deal needed buy-in from Israel because of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, which required Tiran and Sanafir to be a demilitarized zone and have the presence of a force of multinational observers led by the U.S.
  • Israel gave its approval in principle to transfer the islands back to Saudi Arabia, pending an agreement between Cairo and Riyadh on the work of the multinational forces and freedom of navigation in the strait.
  • But the deal was never finalized, mainly because Saudi Arabia wanted the international observers to leave the islands. This created the need for a new arrangement involving Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
  • The Biden administration for months has been quietly mediating among Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt. But because Saudi Arabia and Israel don’t have diplomatic relations and can’t sign official bilateral agreements directly, the countries involved needed to use creative legal and diplomatic solutions to try to indirectly finalize a deal.
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