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Israel, Egypt, Saudi ‘close to deal’ on Red Sea islands

Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are close to reaching an agreement over the status of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir, according to a report by the US website Axios.

The two islands, which are strategically located in the Straits of Tiran in the Red Sea, are currently under Egyptian control but Egypt said in 2017 that it would transfer sovereignty over them to Saudi Arabia.

However this has been delayed because the islands are demilitarized, with a multinational observer force present under the 1979 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, which guarantee Israeli ships free passage through the Straits of Tiran.

Israel has agreed to Egypt transferring the islands to Saudi Arabia provided that they remain demilitarized and Israeli ships can continue passing through the straits.

However, it has been difficult to formalize this because Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have diplomatic relations and therefore cannot sign agreements.

Axios reported that officials had drawn up a complex plan under which Saudi Arabia would sign an agreement with Egypt providing for continued demilitarization of the islands and safe passage for Israeli ships through the Straits of Tiran.

The US would act as the agreement’s guarantor and would send a letter to Israel guaranteeing it. The multinational force on the islands would leave in preparation for their transfer to Saudi Arabia, according to Axios.

Israeli officials told Axios that outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his likely successor Yair Lapid had both approved the plan.

“The trick here was how Saudi Arabia can sign an agreement with Israel without signing an agreement with Israel. There is no disagreement of substance,” an Israeli official told Axios.

In 2020 several Arab countries, including the UAE and Bahrain, officially normalised ties with Israel.

Saudi Arabia has not yet done so though, although informal relations are believed to exist and there has been strong speculation in recent weeks that a normalisation deal is in the works.

Axios reported that in addition to the Tiran and Sanafir agreement, Saudi Arabia is set to allow Israeli commercial airlines travelling to China and India to use its airspace this week.

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