Tiran Island

The US hopes to clinch an agreement ahead of President Joe Biden’s upcoming Mideast visit.

By Pesach Benson, United With Israel

The US is quietly mediating an agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia that could potentially pave the way for the Saudis to normalize relations with Israel, Axios reported on Tuesday.

The deal involves Egypt transferring two small Red Sea islands off the Sinai Peninsula to the Saudis.

The Saudis are interested in Tiran Island and Sanafir Island as part of an ambitious plan to build a futuristic city called Neom. The project includes a causeway linking the Saudi and Sinai peninsulas via Tiran Island.

Finalizing the transfer requires Israeli approval because the islands were demilitarized in accordance with the 1979 Camp David Accords.

According to Axios, Israel does not object in principle to the islands coming under Saudi sovereignty as long as they remain demilitarized and free shipping in the Straits of Tiran continues.

The Saudis have agreed to the demands, but reportedly reject the presence of international peacekeepers. Israel is considering unspecified alternative security arrangements.

Straits of Tiran

The Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir. (Screenshot with modifications by United With Israel)

The report identified White House Mideast coordinator Brett McGurk as spearheading the US mediation. The U.S. is hoping to clinch an agreement ahead of President Joe Biden’s Mideast visit at the end of June.

In the broader picture of normalized ties, Israel is seeking permission for more of its passenger planes to be able to cross Saudi airspace and allow direct flights for Israeli Muslims making pilgrimages to Mecca. Axios did not indicate if there was any specific linkage.

The islands lie in Saudi territorial waters, but in 1950, they were leased to Egypt and placed under Cairo’s protection at the request of the Saudis. Israel captured the islands during the Six-Day in 1967 after Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. The islands were returned to Egypt along with the Sinai Peninsula when Israel and Egypt made peace.

In 2017, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi ratified an agreement to transfer the islands back to the Saudis, but it has not been finalized. Although Egypt’s legislature and courts back the agreement, public opinion is deeply opposed. Critics say Sisi is ceding Egyptian land in exchange for Saudi cash handouts.

The islands are currently uninhabited except for international peace monitors. However tourists — primarily Red Sea snorkeling enthusiasts — can take day trips by boat from Sharm el-Sheikh.