Strange Bedfellows
Backdoor Ratification

When Saudi Arabia and Egypt agreed recently to transfer two Egyptian-owned islands to Saudi Arabia to build a bridge between the two nations, they also did something more profound—they caused Saudi Arabia to take up a role in the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, in which Egypt recognized Israel’s right to exist. The Times of Israel reports:

The two Red Sea islands figure prominently in the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement signed in 1979, which promises safe passage to Israeli civilian and military ships through the narrow waterways of the Straits of Tiran. The Egyptian blockade of the waterway to Israeli shipping in 1967 was a key casus belli for Israel that led to the onset of the Six Day War.

Under the Egyptian-Saudi agreement, the islands are to be transferred to Saudi control in 25 years, giving Riyadh a direct hand in ensuring the fulfillment of the peace treaty with Israel.

Saudi officials in recent days have said they were committed to “all Egyptian commitments” related to the islands. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in an interview that his country would honor the Israel-Egypt peace treaty’s terms as regards the islands. Saudi Arabia won’t negotiate with Israel about the islands, he said, since “the commitments that Egypt approved [in the peace treaty] we are also committed to, including the stationing of an international force on the islands. We looked into the matter and we know our legal position. We are committed to what Egypt committed to before the international community.”

But according to Ya’alon, the coordination with Israel went further. Saudi Arabia agreed to ensure free shipping for all parties through the straits. Israel was notified in writing about the new arrangement weeks before it was made public, and gave its approval in writing to Egypt and, indirectly, to Saudi Arabia.

Israel also agreed to the construction of a bridge between the islands and the Egyptian and Saudi mainlands.

Of course, the significance of all this shouldn’t be overstated: being obligated to something diplomatically isn’t worth the paper it’s written on if the parties involved change their mind. If the day comes when Saudi Arabia feels its in its interests to be hostile to Israel again, this exchange of notes won’t stop it.

Nevertheless, for now, it’s a sign that, as we’ve been noting for a while, Israel and Saudi Arabia are moving cautiously toward deeper engagement. 

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