Israel Examining Steps to Transfer Red Sea Islands to Saudi Arabia

The reported mediation attempts come as U.S. President Joe Biden mulls a visit to Saudi Arabia next month, during a Middle East trip that will also include a stop in Israel

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
Tiran Island in the Red Sea. Talks are underway for sovereignty to revert to Saudia Arabia from Egypt.
Tiran Island in the Red Sea. Talks are underway for sovereignty to revert to Saudia Arabia from Egypt.Credit: Irina UA /
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Israel is considering a Saudi request to change the international status of two islands in the Red Sea, officials said, bringing Israel and Saudi Arabia closer to their first public agreement.

The deal being put together by the White House focuses on the transfer of the Tiran and Sanafir islands in the Red Sea from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty. In 2017, Egypt and Saudi Arabia agreed that the islands would be returned to Riyadh, a move that was approved by the Egyptian parliament and Supreme Court. It also required Israeli approval, due to the terms of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

Israel gave its tacit approval, pending an Egyptian-Saudi agreement to allow U.S.-led multinational observers to continue their oversight of the islands while ensuring freedom of navigation for vessels en route to Israel’s port city of Eilat. That agreement has been stuck for the past four years as final status issues have remained unresolved.

The reported mediation attempts come on top of reports that Biden is mulling a visit to Saudi Arabia next month, during a Middle East trip that will also include a stop in Israel. Israel has expressed hope that this will promote further public gestures between the two countries.

LISTEN: Biden wanted to isolate the Saudis. Now he has to kiss the ring

Israel and Saudi Arabia have for years been conducting covert talks on diplomatic, security and business affairs. Senior Israeli officials, mainly related to defense issues, visit the kingdom from time to time. However, Saudi Arabia is not eager to formalize these relations, mainly due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to a knowledgeable source, “the road to normalized relations between the two countries is still a long one.”

The U.S. imposed “boycott" on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, due to his involvement in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, suspended some of the topics that were under discussion by the two countries. Israel assesses that the Americans wish to warm their relations with the Saudis, with President Biden possibly “pardoning” bin Salman. This comes on the backdrop of the global energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine and Iran’s efforts to increase the amount of oil it sells, with the U.S. trying to make Saudi Arabia a more significant player by increasing its oil output.

The U.S. move may make Saudi relations with Israel more overt, even if still not formalized. The American mediation between the two countries was first reported on the Walla news website.

Egypt announced that it would be transferring the two islands to Saudi Arabia in April of 2016. As part of Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt, international observers were posted on both islands, usually U.S. ones. Any development on the islands required Israel’s consent, including changes in the monitoring mechanism. Tiran and Sanafir were under Saudi rule until 1950, when Riyadh transferred them to Egypt out of concern that Israel would occupy them.

Israel captured the islands in 1956, but it returned them to Egypt four months later. Any dispute regarding the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt is supposed to be settled, according to the agreement, by negotiations between the two countries. Egypt blocked the straits to Israeli traffic in 1967, an act that served as a casus belli for the outbreak of the Six-Day War. Israel again captured the islands, only to return them, along with half of the Sinai Peninsula, in April 1982, three years after the signing of the peace treaty.

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


Election ad featuring Yair Lapid in Rahat, the largest Arab city in Israel's Negev region.

This Bedouin City Could Decide Who Is Israel's Next Prime Minister

Dr. Claris Harbon in the neighborhood where she grew up in Ashdod.

A Women's Rights Lawyer Felt She Didn't Belong in Israel. So She Moved to Morocco

Mohammed 'Moha' Alshawamreh.

'It Was Real Shock to Move From a Little Muslim Village, to a Big Open World'

From the cover of 'Shmutz.'

'There Are Similarities Between the Hasidic Community and Pornography’

A scene from Netflix's "RRR."

‘RRR’: If Cocaine Were a Movie, It Would Look Like This

Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid's Journey: From Late-night Host to Israel's Prime Minister