The transfer of the two Red Sea islands from Egyptian hands to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia caused outrage in Egypt. Hundreds protested on the streets and campuses and the issue went viral on social media. The hashtags #Egyptissold and #Awad_sold_his_land, in reference to a character in an old Egyptian song who sold his land, quickly began to trend.
The deal was struck during Saudi King Salam Bin Abdulaziz’s first state visit to the North African state in April, during which 15 agreements were signed, including a development package for Sinai and an oil deal worth $22billion over five years.
Satirist Baseem Youssef tweeted: “The island is for a billion, the pyramids are for two, and they come with two gift statues on top.”
In response to the public anger, Egyptian President Abdul Fatah Al-Sisi said: “We have paid a high price to get where we are now, and we will not let anyone harm Egypt’s security, stability and institutions.” Meanwhile, security agents rounded up dozens of protestors, activists, journalists and lawyers in an effort to crackdown on unrest.
The islands of Sanafir and Tiran are two tiny, entirely uninhabited, pieces of land located at the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba. They hold great strategic significance due to their location and ability to control entry to the Gulf of Aqaba and the ports of Eilat and Aqaba in Israel and Jordan respectively.
Israel captured the islands during the 1967 Six Day War but returned them to Egypt after the two countries signed a peace agreement in 1979. Initially, however, custody of the islands had been transferred to Egypt at the request of Saudi King Abdulaziz Al-Saud in 1950 because the kingdom lacked a naval force to protect the islands against a possible Israeli expansion following the 1948 war.
Israeli approbation of the deal
Israel’s approval of the deal not only demonstrated the Israel-Saudi cooperation which is active behind the scenes, but also the prospects of the progression of relations between the two sides.
Regarding the agreement, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon said: “We reached an agreement between the four parties – the Saudis, the Egyptians, Israel and the United States – to transfer the responsibility for the islands on the condition the Saudis fill in the Egyptian shoes in the military appendix of the peace agreement.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir told Egyptian media that his country would have no direct relations with Israel. He did, however, commit to comply with previous agreements between Egypt and the international community.
Writing in the Israeli daily Maariv, journalist Yossi Melman wrote: “The consent that was given by Israel for Egypt to restore sovereignty over two tiny islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia is just the tip of the iceberg of the fascinating secret talks that have been held behind the scenes.”
Israel – Saudia relationship trail behind the scene
Israel and Saudi having no formal ties yet relish in good cooperation and a working relationship behind closed doors, contrary to the public statements which are largely designed to provide a cover for the benefit of public consumption.
An article published by The Intercept said: “In 2009, a US State Department diplomatic cable gave one of the first glimpses of a burgeoning alliance between Israel and the Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The cable quoted Israeli Foreign Ministry official Yacov Hadas saying, ‘the Gulf Arabs believe in Israel’s role because of their perception of Israel’s close relationship with the United States,’ adding that GCC states ‘believe Israel can work magic’.”
According to another cable, Hadas reportedly added that the Gulf Arabs were still “not ready to do publicly what they say in private.”
However, in recent years it seems both sides have finally readied themselves to go public about their warming relationships or at least the signs are now apparent.
In an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, high-ranking former Saudi and Israeli officials not only shared the stage but revealed that the two countries had been holding a series of high-level meetings to discuss shared strategic goals, particularly around the perceived regional ascendance of Iran.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold (right) and former Saudi government adviser Anwar Eshki (left) shake hands in Washington DC, as former US diplomat Elliott Abrams looks on.
Saudi Prince Turki Bin Faisal took the unprecedented step of publishing an op-ed in a major Israeli newspaper calling for peace between Israel and GCC nations, as well as for a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The events where Mossad and Saudi officials were found collaborating in a covert intelligence contingency plan against Iran, the regular flights between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi flying through Saudi, Qatari and Bahraini airspace despite the ostensible ban on Israeli citizens entering the GCC, are some indications of the good relationship the two sides enjoy.
Speaking to Israeli Army Radio, former director of Israel’s National Security Council, Yaakov Amidror, said: “It is also clear that Saudi Arabia has many interests that are linked to Israeli interests. I would also add Jordan to this. I think that there are great common interests here which serve as a good basis for various relationships.”
A colossal game
The developing Iranian influence in the Middle East has previously been the justification for mutual cooperation between Saudi and Israel. However, with the fear of a “bogeymen” named Daesh, both sides are seizing the opportunity to shift public opinion with some justifications and compromises to enable them to take their relationship to the next level. This shift will be evident in the Palestinian issue.
Since the advent of Israel on the world map in 1948, the Arab states, other Muslim states and Muslim communities have never accepted its existence and consider it an illicit state which has occupied the land of Palestine.
However, a paradigm shift commenced with the Saudi-brokered Arab Peace Initiative, which was endorsed by the Arab League’s 22 member states in 2002. Arab leaders collectively offered Israel “recognition” of its right to exist and “normalisation” of diplomatic ties in exchange for its complete withdrawal from Arab lands captured since 1967.
Speaking about the initiative, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this month: “We are willing to negotiate with the Arab states revisions to that initiative so that it reflects the dramatic changes in the region since 2002, but maintains the agreed goal of two states for two peoples.”
Over the past year, Israel has increased its illegal settlements in occupied East Jerusalem and elsewhere, its atrocities and killings have also risen, in addition to the restrictions it placed on worshippers accessing Al-Aqsa Mosque. All of which have not brought about an outcry from the international community or Arab rulers. However, these actions provide a further cover-up for the negotiations which are taking place behind the scenes; the more the Palestinians suffer, the higher the chances that the masses will accept any peace deal which could relieve their suffering.
One would expect Hamas to fire hundreds of rockets into Israel in response, this has not transpired and instead, a secret Gaza truce deal is about to be concluded between Hamas and Israel – mediated by former EU Envoy for Peace in the Middle East Tony Blair, Egypt, Turkey and Qatar.
It seems that all the Middle Eastern states are working to normalise relations with Israel behind closed doors, under the guise of saving Palestinians and Gaza. Contracts like Red Sea deal are more likely to be seen as part of this plan.
A Turkish official told reporters: “We are close to concluding a deal [on a full normalisation of ties with Israel] but it is not over yet so I won’t comment further… The lifting of the Gaza blockade is our third condition.”
Many believed that appointment of Hani Mulki as new prime minister of Jordan was “likely to improve ties with Israel”.
“Mulki will be working to bring Palestinians and Israelis to the negotiation table and work to bring a final solution to the Palestinian cause which would most likely be at the expense of the Palestinian people,” a former senior government aide said. Meanwhile, last week Jordan passing the “investment law” which allows foreign countries, including Israel, to invest in strategic projects in the country.
The ongoing increasing relations between Arab States and Israel risk angering the public who are already isolated from the regimes governing them. However, they play into the increasing American hegemony in the Middle East.
As for the Palestinians, their real voices or the concerns of the masses within the Muslim world were never put on the table by Arab leaders; instead the issue was used to engender a public image. The gloomy future for Palestinians and Muslims in general will only worsen unless they have a sincere leadership which represents them has a vision beyond the modern day.
In the past, Muslim leaders viewed Palestine as a vital issue and stood firmly by it. Abdul Hamid II, the last Sultan of weakening Ottoman Empire, refused the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl’s offers to cover a substantial portion of the Ottoman debt (£150 million in gold) in exchange for a charter allowing Zionists to settle in Palestine.
“As long as I am alive, I will not have our body divided; only our corpse they can divide,” he said.
The author is an electrical engineer; his interests include international relations and global politics. You can read his blog here.
Twitter: @farazmfateh (https://twitter.com/farazmfateh)
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.