The Biden administration is mediating a deal between the Egyptians, Saudis and Israelis, which would include the transfer of two Red Sea islands from the Egyptians to the Saudis, sources told Axios.
President Joe Biden is working to get the deal done before his Middle East trip in late June, which might include a stop in Saudi Arabia amid icy relations, five U.S. and Israeli sources told Axios.
Israel and Saudi Arabia do not currently have diplomatic relations, but Tiran and Sanafir islands would give control of the Straits of Tiran, a strategic passage to tJordan’s Aqaba port and Israel’s Eilat port, according to the report.
The Trump administration’s Abraham Accords had led to normalization deals between Israel, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, but Israel and Saudi Arabia have yet to come together over the Israeli-Palestinian standoff.
The 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty stipulated Tiran and Sanafir must be demilitarized but have a multinational force led by the U.S. to ensure freedom of navigation in the Straits of Tiran.
There has been approval in Egypt to transfer the islands back to Saudi Arabia, but the peace deal pulls Israel into the mix, along with the multinational force piece remaining a sticking point for Saudi Arabia. The Saudis want to keep the freedom of navigation without the multinational observing force.
Israel wants a security agreement of some kind if the Saudis are giving control of the strait.
White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk is mediating the talks, sources told Axios.
Among other concessions, Israel wants Saudi Arabia to allow Israeli airlines to cross more Saudi airspace to shorten flights to India, Thailand and China, according to the report.
Biden’s late June Middle East trip might start with a visit with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, then a summit with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, sources told Axios.
Biden had sought to make Saudi Arabia an international pariah for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi — among other reasons — and relations have been strained since he has taken office.