Israel promised free passage after Saudi takeover of strategic islands

The Red Sea islands of Tiran, in the foreground, and Sanafir, in the background, sit at the the Strait of Tiran between Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

The Red Sea islands of Tiran, in the foreground, and Sanafir, in the background, sit at the the Strait of Tiran between Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

(JTA) – Israel was guaranteed in writing free passage through the Straits of Tiran after Saudi Arabia’s planned takeover of two strategic Red Sea islands, Israel’s defense minister told reporters Tuesday.

Egypt agreed to hand over the islands, which it has controlled for more than 60 years, as part of a deal to build a bridge over the sea between the two countries that was announced during a weekend visit by King Salman of Saudi Arabia.

The deal had raised questions about Israel’s continued access to the passage, the revocation of which was a casus belli of the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and its neighbours. But Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Israel was consulted early in talks over the deal and gave its consent.

“An appeal was made to us – and it needed our agreement, the Americans who were involved in the peace agreement and of the MFO,” Ya’alon said, referring to the Multinational Force and Observers peacekeeping forces at the Israeli-Egyptian border. “We reached an agreement between the four parties – the Saudis, the Egyptians, Israel and the United States – to transfer the responsibility for the islands, on condition that the Saudis fill in the Egyptians’ shoes in the military appendix of the peace agreement.”

In the document given to Israel, Saudi Arabia, which does not have formal relations with Israel, pledges to abide by the principles that have governed Israeli-Egyptian relations since their 1979 peace treaty, Haaretz reported. According to the treaty, the Straits of Tiran and the entire Gulf of Aqaba are international waterways open to free passage by Israel and overseen by the international observers.

The islands being relinquished to Saudi Arabia, Tiran and Sanafir, stand sentry at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba. The Israeli city of Eilat and the Jordanian city of Aqaba are located at the northern tip of the gulf. The Saudi-Egyptian deal has faced public criticism in Egypt as a blow to national pride.

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