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Biden can navigate Mideast peace through the Straits of Tiran

Associated Press/Tsafrir Abayov, Pool
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, as seen in this Feb. 20, 2022, photo.

During my 45-year association with the Mideast, I often have been asked to describe the region and its seemingly endless layers of religious, cultural, historical and geopolitical complexities — and unhesitatingly, I always answer, “It is a kaleidoscope.” One twist and every angle you believe you understand becomes a mirage and a new reality of the land, its challenges, roadblocks and possibilities tumble into view. Nothing is ever what it seems and moments of clarity and opportunity, when they come, often are fleeting.

The State Department, ahead of President Biden’s planned trip to the Middle East in late June, reportedly is actively working to seize such a moment — an opening that, if achieved, could be a foundational building block to a future peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Barak Ravid, the author of Axios from Tel Aviv, is reporting the U.S. is “mediating” an agreement with Israel’s knowledge and tacit approval that finally would return full sovereignty of the Tiran and Sanafir Islands from Cairo to Riyadh. Both islands have been under Egypt’s military control since Saudi Arabia’s request in 1950.

The significance of the two islands. and the Straits of Tiran they geographically dominate, cannot be overstated. The narrow navigational passages they control into and out of the Gulf of Aqaba are, in many ways, the primary reason for Israel’s map appearing as it does today. Located at the opening of the Red Sea, between the eastern edge of the Sinai peninsula and Saudi Arabia, they easily can be used to blockade commercial shipping to Israel’s only Gulf of Aqaba seaport — Eilat — which, in 1967, was Israel’s primary oil off-loading port facility. When then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser decided to do just that, he set in motion the 1967 Six Day War, known as an-Naksah, “the setback,” in the Arab world, resulting in Israel’s seizing control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Straits of Tiran, however, first began shaping that map in 1957, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower and France’s President Charles de Gaulle provided Israel separate security assurances to induce Israel to withdraw from the Sinai. Israel had seized the peninsula from Egypt in 1956 during the Suez Crisis. Eisenhower specifically authorized a written aide-mémoire, an informal diplomatic communique, assuring Israel, in exchange for announcing their full withdrawal, that the U.S. viewed the Gulf of Aqaba and Straits of Tiran as “international waters.”

However, as the former U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Camp David Peace Accords in the late 1970s, Samuel W. Lewis (a man I was privileged to know), noted in a June 2007 symposium on the Six Day War: “… The failure of Washington and Paris to live up to their 1957 commitments on keeping the Straits of Tiran open [were] important factors contributing to the [1967] war.”

President Lyndon Johnson knew it as well — as early as June 17, 1967, when he lamented Nasser’s blockading of the Straits of Tiran, noting, “If a single act of folly was more responsible for this explosion than any other it was the arbitrary and dangerous announced decision that the Straits of Tiran would be closed.”

Consequently, mindful of 1967, Ambassador Lewis fully recognized — as he shuttled back and forth between President Jimmy Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at Camp David — Israel would have to receive, at a minimum, sacrosanct assurances that the Straits of Tiran never again would be closed in order to secure a peace deal between Egypt and Israel.

Egypt, under the terms of its March 26, 1979, peace treaty with Israel, is obligated under Article V, Paragraph 2, to “consider the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba to be international waterways open to all nations for unimpeded and non-suspendable freedom of navigation and overflight.” As such, any deal between Cairo and Riyadh to finalize the return of the two islands would require Saudi Arabia to acknowledge, and assume without conditions or exceptions, Egypt’s existing responsibilities to ensure Israel’s freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Aqaba and Red Sea. Neither Israel nor the U.S. would accept anything less — and therein lies the implication that an opening to a normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia might well be much further along than anyone believed possible.

If so, this would be the Biden administration’s first major breakthrough in the Middle East and, in addition to building upon the Abraham Accords, it potentially could lead to additional breakthroughs in negotiating a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Gaza, for now — as long as Hamas remains in power — likely remains a bridge too far, given Israel’s distrust of Hamas and its connections to Iran, and given Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s extreme distrust of the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence over Hamas.

Encouragingly, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan did not deny Ravid’s report in Axios when asked about it during a panel discussion at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Faisal noted, “We have always seen normalization as the end result for a path [to peace],” and pointed out “more steps” are needed to resolve Palestinian statehood. Axios also reported that two senior U.S. officials traveled to Riyadh ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend to discuss increasing “oil production” and the two countries’ overall “bilateral relationship.” It is unclear whether they were in Saudi Arabia to also discuss Egypt’s returning control of Tiran and Sanafir to the kingdom. Meanwhile, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who also was at Davos, was cited as saying Israel is hopeful Saudi Arabia eventually will sign on to the Abraham Accords, noting, however, “It’s a process and it takes time.” Egypt likely would agree, but is unlikely to comment ahead of an announcement, since, as Michael Wahid Hanna, U.S. program director of the International Crisis Group, said, “This is still a bit of a sensitive topic for some in Egypt.”

Washington must aggressively seize upon this opening. Yes, it will mean painfully looking the other way when it comes to Saudi Arabia and its misdeeds. However, breakthrough opportunities for peace rarely present themselves in the Mideast. One is now and it is within reach. In 1977, when I first gazed upon the Tiran and Sanafir Islands, they were hazy and forbidding. Now, they are clear and inviting — and instead of being a cause of war, they can and must be a path for peace. The Biden administration must be quick about it. The kaleidoscope that is the Mideast is already starting to twist and what is, soon no longer will be.

Mark Toth is an economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing, and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg, and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.

Tags Biden Egypt Israel Middle East peace in the Middle East Saudi Arabia

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