The Biden administration in Washington has been mediating quietly between Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt about negotiations that, if successful, could pave the way for the normalisation of relations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
The negotiations are over the transfer of two strategic islands in the Straits of Tiran from Egypt to Saudi Arabia in 2017. Despite public protests, Egypt's House of Representatives agreed to give control of Tiran and Sanafir in the straits which separate the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea to the Saudis.
Opponents of the controversial deal say that President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi gave sovereign Egyptian territory to the oil-rich Kingdom in exchange for billions of dollars in development aid for the Sinai Peninsula. It cannot be ignored, moreover, that Riyadh has backed the former general's rise to power since his coup against the democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
However, Egypt needs the occupation state's approval to transfer sovereignty of both islands to Saudi Arabia, because they were included in the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Under the treaty, Israel gave its approval in principle to the transfer pending a deal between Cairo and Riyadh on continuing the work of the multinational observers who patrol the islands and ensure that freedom of navigation in the Straits of Tiran remains unhindered.
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For various reasons the arrangement was not finalised. In the latest rounds of talks to transfer the islands to Saudi control, Israel has objected to Riyadh's request to end the presence of the multinational observers, although it has said that it wants to keep the islands demilitarised.
According to Axios, Israeli officials agreed to consider ending the presence of the multinational force but asked for alternative security arrangements that would achieve the same results. This has opened up the possibility of greater cooperation between Riyadh and Tel Aviv, not least permission for Israeli airlines to use more Saudi airspace, which would shorten flights to India, Thailand and China dramatically. Israel also wants the Saudis to allow direct flights to Jeddah for Palestinian Israeli Muslims who want to go on pilgrimage to the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.
The Biden administration believes that finalising an agreement could build trust between the parties and create an opening for warmer relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, according to five US and Israeli sources who spoke to Axios. It's thought that Saudi Arabia would be open to normalising relations with Israel if negotiations over the islands prove to be successful. Unlike the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, the Kingdom has refused to join the so-called Abraham Accords unless there is serious progress in ending the apartheid state's occupation of Palestine.
In a further indication that normalisation is a real possibility, Zionist rabbis from America, Italy and France were invited to participate in an interfaith event in Riyadh organised by the Muslim World League.
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