Will Egypt-Saudi deal on Red Sea islands affect Israeli peace treaty?

Ahram Online , Monday 11 Apr 2016

Egyptian national flag and the Israeli flag at the Taba crossing
File Photo: An Egyptian soldier stands near the Egyptian national flag and the Israeli flag at the Taba crossing between Egypt and Israel, about 430 kilometers (256 miles) northeast of Cairo, Oct. 26, 2011 (Photo: Reuters)

In 1979 Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty that brought to an end to the Israeli occupation of the Sinai Peninsula and guaranteed Israeli ships safe passage through the Gulfs of Aqaba and Suez.

The Gulf of Aqaba, which lies between Saudi Arabia and Egypt's Sinai, also includes the Straits of Tiran, where the small islands of Tiran and Sanafir are located, securing the entrance to the gulf. These two islands have become the subject of a controversy in recent days after Egypt announced a deal with Saudi Arabia that acknowledges they fall within Saudi waters.

While much of the public debate in Egypt has been focused on whether the islands, which have been claimed by both Saudi Arabia and Egypt at different times, belong to one or the other, the effect the announcement will have on the peace treaty with Israel has yet to be widely discussed.

The two islands lie in Sinai's Zone C, according to the peace treaty, and accordingly were among those areas to be patrolled temporarily by international forces. An Egyptian military presence is prohibited in these areas, according to the treaty.

In 1982, Israel asked Egypt to allow the international forces securing both islands to remain, after Saudi Crown Prince Fahd said that he would ask the Egyptian authorities to return the islands to Saudi sovereignty following the peace treaty. The Saudi request was never met, and the two islands remained under Egyptian supervision.

Saudi Arabia and Israel do not have officially diplomatic relations. But Mohamed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince and defence minister, has written a letter to Prime Minister Sherif Ismail stating that the two islands will still be manned by international forces while under Saudi supervision.

On Monday, Al-Ahram newspaper reported that the Egyptian authorities had shared that information with their Israeli counterparts. The newspaper reported that if the Israeli government acknowledges the Egyptian-Saudi deal, the Knesset must endorse it.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubier told Egyptian journalists on Sunday that although there will never be any deals sealed with Israel until the Palestinian crisis is resolved, Riyadh respects Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and it will never negotiate with Tel Aviv over the permanent presence of the international forces on the two islands.

For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on his Twitter account on Sunday that his state respected the peace treaty with Egypt, vowing that "the peace status with Egypt is stronger than any time before despite all the ongoing challenges which are facing both states" and describing the bilateral relationship as “an important prerequisite for national security for both countries."

However, official sources told Israeli radio that the issue is being studied by a team of legal and judicial experts afflicted with the Israeli foreign ministry, and the government will announce its stance on the issue when it receives the experts' feedback.

Internally, Egypt's decision to hand over the two islands has caused controversy, with some political figures questioning the constitutionality of the decision, while other voices backed the Egyptian stance to return the islands to the Saudi government.

The Egyptian government says that its decision comes after a six-year process of studies and eleven rounds of negotiations between officials and experts from Cairo and Riyadh.

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