Joe Biden’s representatives are holding secret talks with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel aimed at normalizing relations between Saudi and Israel, according to a report.
The establishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations would be a major foreign policy coup for the White House.
Talks are currently focused on confirming ownership of two contested uninhabited islands in the Red Sea – a major stumbling block for any normalization.
Saudi Arabia has never formally accepted Israel, despite both countries edging closer throughout the decades.
The agreement would be the most significant in the Middle East since 2020, when Donald Trump negotiated a a deal between Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates to normalize ties with Israel – agreements that came to be known as the Abraham Accords.
Egypt was in 1979 the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but for years downplayed their ties – with the most substantial interactions largely between the two countries’ militaries.
Biden is hoping to get an agreement in place before his trip to the Middle East at the end of June, Axios reported on Monday.
A key stumbling block of any deal is what to do with the Tiran and Sanafir islands, which sit in between Egypt and Saudi Arabia – but control entry to the Gulf of Aqaba, a vital strategic channel for Israel which leads to the port city of Eilat
Tiran island is seen in the foreground, with its mountains inland, and Sanafir behind. The Egyptian resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh is on the mainland
Joe Biden is seen on Tuesday in Tokyo, addressing a summit of the Quad, with the leaders of Japan, Australia and India
Contested control of Tiran and Sarafin islands
1949: Egyptian military takes control of the uninhabited islands of Tiran and Sanafir in the Red Sea, at the request of their ally Saudi Arabia.
1954: Egypt tells the UN Security Council that the two islands had been Egyptian territory since the delimitation of the frontier between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire in 1906. Israel says that the islands had not belonged to Egypt before 1949.
1956: Israel captures the islands, but then returns them to Egypt.
1967: The islands are captured again by Israel, during the Six-Day War.
1979: The Camp David accords, an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, is signed. Tiran and Sanafir must be a demilitarized zone and have the presence of a force of multinational observers led by the United States.
1982: Israel hands the islands back to Egypt, in compliance with the Camp David accords.
1988: Saudi Arabia formally petitions for the return of the islands, and repeats the request the year later.
2016: King Abdel Aziz al-Saud, the leader of Saudi Arabia, says that he previously granted Egypt permission to defend the islands since he was afraid of possible Israeli expansion, while his kingdom lacked a suitable naval force to protect them. Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, says the islands were always Saudi, and reaches a deal to transfer the islands back to Saudi Arabia – in return for financial support. The deal sparks protest, and is rejected by the country’s highest court.
2018: Egypt’s Supreme Court approves a deal to transfer sovereignty back to Saudi Arabia. Israel gave its agreement in principal, provided there remains a multinational force of observers on the islands, to protect the freedom of shipping. The deal was never finalized.
The parties are now looking at ways of resolving the issue of the Tiran and Sanafir islands, which sit in between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but control entry to the Gulf of Aqaba – a vital strategic channel for Israel, leading to the port city of Eilat.
The islands have switched between Israeli, Egyptian and Saudi control since the founding of Israel in 1948.
In 1949, Egypt’s military occupied the small outcrops – Tiran is 30 square miles, and Sanafir is 13 square miles – at the request of its ally Saudi Arabia, which at that point did not have a Navy, and was concerned about Israel’s intentions.
Israel, wanting to protect access to its port in Eilat, twice seized the islands – in 1956 and 1967 – but both times returned them to Egypt following peace talks.
Saudi Arabia, which founded its Navy in 1960, formally petitioned for the return of the islands in 1988.
But Israel remained skeptical, and concerned about the potential for a hostile nation to cut off their vital shipping route.
Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has been backed by Saudi Arabia, in 2016 declared that the islands were rightfully Saudi’s, and began the process of handing them over – but was blocked by the courts, and strong Egyptian opposition.
An agreement was approved by the Egyptian Supreme Court in 2018.
Israel said that it would accept the handover, in principal – depending on there being a multinational force stationed on the islands, to protect shipping routes.
The agreement has never been ratified.
Brett McGurk, the White House Middle East coordinator, has been leading the current round of talks, Axios reported.
Sources told the site that the multinational force on the islands is proving to be a key sticking point.
Saudi Arabia has agreed to keep the islands demilitarized and commit to maintaining full freedom of navigation to all ships, according to Axios.
The country did not want to commit to multinational observers.
Israeli officials said that could be considered, but only if there were alternative security arrangements that would guarantee the same protection.
Israel is also seeking other concessions from Saudi Arabia, such as allowing Israeli aircraft to fly over Saudi airspace, which would significantly cut down the time needed to fly from Tel Aviv to Asia.
King Salman of Saudi Arabia (left) and President Sisi of Egypt (right) agree that the islands should be handed back to Saudi control, but are yet to finalize the details
Sisi is pictured meeting King Salman on March 8, during a visit to Riyadh
Naftali Bennett, the prime minister of Israel, is seen on May 15. He is willing to discuss the deal with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but is seeking some concessions
The Israelis also want the Saudis to allow direct flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia, for Muslims in Israel who want to go on pilgrimage.
Biden is expected to visit Saudi Arabia next month, and meet the country’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
The 36-year-old is the de facto power in the country, although his father, King Salman, 86, is nominally in charge.
Biden’s trip would also include a summit with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, several Arab sources told Axios.