A leaked audio recording broadcast on Friday evening by the Istanbul-based Mukameleen TV has exposed Israel’s hidden hand in ongoing discussions between the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia over two islands in the Red Sea that sit at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, and therefore Israel’s access to the Red Sea.
The recordings, that appear to be from late last year, expose Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s telephone conversation with shadowy Israeli lawyer and negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, a close aide and relative of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
According to the recording, Shoukry is heard consulting Molcho on a proposed agreement between his country and Saudi Arabia, and also to deal with the issue of the Multinational Force and Observers, better known as the MFO, who are deployed to monitor the continuing peace agreement between Israel and Egypt since 1979.
The leak appears to show the Egyptian foreign minister consulting Molcho on legal terminology of the agreement, as well as discussing correspondences between the parties to the agreement.
Though Molcho is technically not a diplomat, he is a legal professional by trade and is a close confidante of Netanyahu, acting as his personal envoy in many affairs relating to negotiating deals with Arab powers regarding the Palestinian-Israeli issue and now, it seems, Arab-Arab affairs that may affect Israel.
In the exchange, Egypt’s top diplomat can be seen asking Molcho’s permission to amend a phrase regarding potential breaches of the deal.
“Can I ask you to please…make one amendment…?” Shoukry pleads with the Israeli lawyer, before continuing with: “Can we change the term ‘[a certain action] will not be considered a breach’ to ‘is not a breach’?”
Facing seeming resistance from Molcho, Shoukry appears to explain himself, saying that “I know that it has the same meaning, but you are drafting [the agreement] for the future, whereas I am drafting for the present.” It is not immediately clear from the transcript what action would be considered in breach of the deal.
“I will agree to what you suggested; [Egypt] will not agree to any amendments to the agreement without the prior agreement of the GOI [the Government of Israel],” Shoukry says, making it clear that the territorial exchange agreement must have Israel’s seal of approval both then and in future.
In the recording, Shoukry is heard informing the Israeli interlocutor that Cairo is still awaiting “the court’s verdict”, it is clear that this conversation took place before the Egyptian Supreme Court made a final ruling declaring the islands to be Egyptian territory, therefore blocking any potential deal with the Saudis.
Did Israel disagree?
The touted deal between Cairo and Riyadh has caused relations to sour between the two allies. According to Saudi Arabia, it had granted temporary control over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to the Egyptians in the 1950s so that Cairo could “protect” them.
This is an interpretation Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi agrees with, and a deal was struck on 8 April last year to restore Saudi control over the islands, and also to construct a bridge called the King Salman Causeway to connect the Arabian Peninsula with North Africa.
However, and in response to legal action to block the Sisi regime from relinquishing the islands, the Egyptian courts declared that Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian, and that no Egyptian territory could be ceded to any foreign power. This led to Saudi Arabia retaliating by choking off crucial funding and oil supplies that Egypt relies on, particularly given the near total collapse of its tourism sector, which is of vital economic importance.
The political wrangling over the islands and control over access to the Red Sea, however, appeared to require Israeli consent. While it is impossible to determine fully what occurred, it is clear that, had it wanted to, the Sisi regime would have forced the judiciary to come to a judgment that suited its purposes and policies.
Following Al-Sisi’s coup against Egypt’s first and only democratically elected leader, former President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the newly installed Sisi regime quickly quashed any independent voices from within the Egyptian judiciary.
Since then, Egyptian courts have sentenced thousands of Egyptians to death over vague charges that have been blasted as being politicised by international human rights organisations, who accuse Cairo of using the courts to crush any dissent and resistance to the restoration of authoritarian military rule in the Arab world’s most populous country.
In light of these leaks exposing Egyptian acquiescence to Israeli instructions on Arab affairs, the decision of the Supreme Court in January to make a final ruling that the islands could not be placed under Saudi Arabian sovereignty carries the possible implication that Israel, and not Egypt, rejected Saudi’s bid to reclaim the islands. Therefore, and to save face, Cairo may have utilised the courts to put forth a legal argument as to why the deal could not go ahead.