In recent months, the US has focused its foreign policy on the war in Ukraine. Strengthening ties with NATO allies and providing a great deal of military and humanitarian assistance to Kiev, Washington has focused on Europe and the Russian offensive. On the other hand, Asia-Pacific is a region of great interest to the US due to the expansion of China, Washington's main rival. For this reason, President Joe Biden has made a trip to the region with the aim of shielding alliances and counteracting Beijing's influence.
However, despite all the open fronts in US international policy, Biden has not forgotten his interests in the Middle East, a region where his predecessor, Donald Trump, focused his efforts on achieving peace agreements between Israel - with whom he strengthened cooperation - and the Arab countries in the area.
Under the Republican's tenure, the Hebrew state established formal relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as resuming them with Morocco. Since then, Washington has also advocated normalisation between Saudi Arabia and Israel, a historic milestone that, according to recent developments in the region, could be closer.
According to Israeli and US diplomats revealed to the Hebrew news agency Walla and the Axios portal, the US is mediating between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel to formally cede the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Riyadh. Negotiations over the strategic Red Sea islands could pave the way for Jerusalem and Riyadh to finally establish formal ties, which would be a major achievement for Naftali Bennett's government, as well as for Washington's foreign policy, where it believes that regulating the status of Tiran and Sanafir could achieve significant progress in relations between the two countries, in addition to building trust between the two.
First, it is necessary to clarify why these two islands linked to Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia could expedite the normalisation process between Jerusalem and the Kingdom.
In 1950 Riyadh ceded control of the two islands to Cairo, although in 1967 Israel seized them along with other territories such as the Sinai following the Six-Day War. Subsequently, within the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace accords, these islands played an important role. The treaties also addressed the free passage of Israeli ships through the Suez Canal and the recognition of the Gulf of Aqaba and the Strait of Tiran as international waterways
Egypt's blockade of this passage before the conflict was one of the causes of the armed confrontation between Israel and neighbouring Arab countries. The Strait of Tiran was Israel's only access through the port city of Eliat to the Asian market, preventing the arrival of oil from Iran, its main supplier at the time.
The islands of Tiran and Sanafir were demilitarised. Israel, due to their geostrategic importance, imposed conditions on their status, such as the maintenance of an international observer force led by the United States. For this reason, Jerusalem plays a key role in the concession of the islands to Saudi Arabia.
In 2017, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi ratified an agreement to hand over the islands to Saudi Arabia despite protests and criticism from the political opposition. Cairo argued that Tiran and Sanafir have always belonged to Riyadh, but were under Egyptian guardianship at the request of the kingdom's founder, Abdelaziz al-Saud, as he had no naval fleet to protect them.
According to Walla, Israel accepted Egypt's decision, although the cession of the islands to Riyadh has not yet been completed because an agreement on the international observer force is still needed to ensure freedom of navigation, a must for Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, the Kingdom's authorities have demanded an end to this international delegation to the islands, although they have committed to keeping them demilitarised and maintaining freedom of navigation. The Israeli authorities, for their part, might consider this point as long as security conditions "remain as strong or even improve", notes the Israeli news agency.
Israel has also asked Saudi Arabia to allow it to use its airspace to shorten flights to points on the Asian continent such as India, Thailand and China, according to Axios. Riyadh promised to lift bans on Israeli airlines after the Abraham Accords, although it only did so on flights to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
The Hebrew authorities have also called for direct flights between the two countries for those wishing to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, as Muslim Israelis wishing to undertake this journey must fly from Jordan.
Saudi Arabia supported the Abraham Accords, although the Kingdom's officials stressed that they would not join them until there was significant progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Riyadh reiterated its position on Israel at the World Economic Forum in Davos. In Geneva, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said that "nothing has changed in the way the Kingdom views the issue", according to Arab News. The head of Saudi diplomacy admitted that "there will be full normalisation with Israel", something that "will bring immense benefits". However, Bin Farhan stressed that "they will not be able to reap those benefits unless the Palestinian issue is not addressed".
The Saudi minister made this point during an interview with CNN a month after the normalisation agreements between Israel and certain Arab countries. The prince noted that this process was "extremely useful" and would bring "enormous benefits" to the region, but it could not happen without addressing "the Palestinian issue". Despite this, there have been some developments in relations between Riyadh and Jerusalem, such as a secret meeting between Mohammed bin Salman and former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2020.
As US diplomatic sources told Walla, the Biden administration has not yet reached an agreement with the three countries involved, and talks are still ongoing. Diplomats have also indicated that Washington hopes to reach an understanding ahead of Biden's visit to the Middle East at the end of June. While in the region, Biden is expected to meet for the first time as president with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
For the time being, bin Salman hosted a delegation of US members of Congress in Riyadh earlier this week. During the meeting, the crown prince discussed bilateral relations and a number of issues of common interest, Arab News reports.
Americas Coordinator: José Antonio Sierra