Two US officials in Riyadh for talks on agreement seeking Israeli approval – report

A report said Wednesday that two senior US officials are in Saudi Arabia for secret talks on a deal that could strengthen Washington’s relations with Riyadh and bring the kingdom closer to normalizing relations with Israel.

U.S. National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East Brett McGurk and State Department envoy Amos Hochstein arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for meetings with senior Saudi officials, Axios reported, citing three current officials and former US officials.

The Axios website reported on Monday that the Biden administration has mediated talks aimed at finalizing details of the transfer of the islands of Tirana and Sanafir in the Red Sea from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

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In 2017, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified a treaty to hand over the islands to Saudi Arabia. The agreement resisted protests and legal challenges in Egypt, but was never finalized.

The two islands in the Red Sea are evident in the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, which promises safe passage for Israeli military and civilian ships through the narrow waterways of the Tirana Strait.

As part of the 1979 agreement, Egypt agreed to demilitarize the two islands and allow a US-led multinational observer force to patrol. Thus, their transfer to Saudi Arabia requires a degree of Israeli acceptance to continue.

U.S. National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East Brett McGurk and State Department envoy for energy Amos Hochstein. (AFP / photomontage)

The Tirana Strait is Israel’s only offshore waterway from Eilat, allowing transportation to and from Africa and Asia without having to cross the Suez Canal, as well as crossing to and from the Suez Canal.

However, Israel offered its initial agreement to transfer the two islands but set out an agreed solution regarding the multinational monitoring force, Axios reported, citing US and Israeli sources.

The report said the multinational group had turned into a major stumbling block in the talks, with Riyadh agreeing to keep the two islands demilitarized, while so far refusing such a force on its soil. Instead, Riyadh offered a commitment to maintain full freedom of navigation for ships through the Tirana Strait.

According to the report, Israeli negotiators showed a willingness to give up the multinational force, but demanded alternative security agreements.

Jerusalem is also urging Saudi Arabia to take a series of steps toward normalizing relations with the Jewish state – that is, allowing additional Israeli flights to use Saudi airspace and allowing direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia so that Muslims can can easily travel to holy cities. of Mecca and Medina from Ben Gurion Airport.

Following the signing of the “Abraham Accords” in 2020, Saudi Arabia began to allow Israeli airlines to use its airspace for flights to and from the UAE and Bahrain. However, Riyadh has not yet allowed Israel to use its airspace for flights to India, Thailand and China, which have become much longer as a result.

US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (vehicle / AP)

While Riyadh gave its approval to the UAE and Bahrain to normalize relations with Israel, he refrained from taking the same step, saying he would not do so in the absence of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Responding to a question about Axio’s report on Tuesday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan did not deny this, but said Riyadh was not ready to normalize relations with Israel at this stage.

“We have always seen normalization as the end result of Masari,” Bin Farhan said. Normalization between the region and Israel will bring benefits, but we will not be able to reap those benefits if we are not able to address the issue of Palestine. The fact that it has not been resolved still continues to bring great instability to the region. “The priority must be how to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and if that happens, the whole region will benefit.”

The United States believes an agreement on the two islands could also build the trust between Israel and Saudi Arabia that is needed for broad steps toward normalization.

The White House hopes to mediate a deal ahead of US President Joe Biden’s expected visit to the region late next month. No date has been set and the White House has only confirmed that the president will come to Israel, but CNN reported last week that US officials are seeking to arrange a meeting between Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Washington has sought to slowly improve relations with Riyadh following Biden’s tough stance on Saudi Arabia and its crown prince during his election campaign over the country’s human rights record and the killing of a Washington Post reporter. , Jamal Khashoggi.

But as the Russian occupation of Ukraine continues to destabilize the global energy market, the United States finds itself increasingly dependent on Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of crude oil.

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