My Word: Bridge over troubled waters

By
April 14, 2016 21:51

The plan to connect the Sinai Peninsula to the Arabian Peninsula could have a historic impact.




Tiran Island

Tiran Island. (photo credit:MARC RYCKAERT (MJJR) / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The Exodus from Egypt was epic, but while Jews everywhere have been busy gearing up for the Passover holiday which starts next week, history – albeit on a smaller scale – was being made with another story involving crossing the Red Sea.

It’s doubtful that thousands of years from now people will still be talking about the decision to build a bridge from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, but in its own modest way the announcement last week was a game changer. Significantly, the bridge would connect the Sinai Peninsula to the Arabian Peninsula for the first time.

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The plan to construct a 32-kilometer (20-mile) bridge, spanning the Gulf of Aqaba, with both road and rail traffic, is not new. It was raised in 1988. But Egypt’s approval, while not the parting of the Red Sea, is no small matter. And even more significant, unlike when the topic was first broached and periodically raised since then, this time both Israel and Jordan appear to have given their blessing.

The announcement about the construction was made at a ceremony in Cairo at the end of a visit by Saudi monarch Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. Parts of the bridge running from Ras Nasrani, near Sharm e-Sheikh in Egypt, to Ras Hamid in northwestern Saudi Arabia, reportedly will be suspended.

It almost suspended belief. The narrow Straits of Tiran have in the past been dire straits rather than the location of a bridge of peace.

The two uninhabited islands, Tiran and Sanafir, that Egypt agreed to return to Saudi Arabia as part of the same deal might be small but they are definitely on the map from a historical perspective.

Because of their strategic location, all maritime traffic heading to Jordan’s Aqaba port and Israel’s port at Eilat must pass them.

In 1956, the Egyptian blockade on the straits was a major reason for the outbreak of the Sinai Campaign, and in 1967, when Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser blocked them again, hoping to cut off Israel’s gateway to Africa and the Middle East, it was considered by Israel a casus belli. The war resulted in Israeli forces taking over the Sinai Peninsula.

Israel gave the islands along with Sinai back to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace agreement, and now Egypt is handing them back to Saudi Arabia, which previously held them.

Much is being made of the economic side of the plan; the revenue and the jobs it could generate are considered by some experts to be a lifeline to the economically struggling regime led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

But the geo-political importance goes beyond the financial aspects.

Whether the bridge is actually built or not, Egypt’s approval of the plan and the agreement to hand Tiran and Sanafir back to Saudi control is an unmistakable sign of the new Sunni alignment taking shape against Iran and Islamic State (in that order).

As Israel Radio’s Arab affairs reporter Eran Singer astutely noted, Iran currently controls the capital cities in four Muslim countries: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sanaa in Yemen. The Saudis want to block the spread of the influence of the main Shi’ite player before it is too late.

It has been forced to adopt its role as leader of the anti-Iran alignment partly because of the local perceptions that President Barack Obama has moved away from the traditional US allies in the region in favor of the Shi’ite Islamic Republic.

As for the second factor in the Saudi move, I am reluctant to describe Saudi Arabia as “moderate,” but compared to ISIS and al-Qaida, now controlling much of Sinai, and a threat to both Egypt and the Saudi kingdom among others, it is the lesser evil.

Israel, while retaining caution, also welcomed the tighter ties between Riyadh and Cairo, in no small part because Riyadh stating it will observe the relevant clauses of the peace agreement – that the two islands remain demilitarized zones and to ensure free passage – signifies some degree of recognition by Saudi Arabia of Israel. Still waters run deep.

Likud MK Avi Dichter, speaking on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet, described the Egyptian-Saudi bridge-building as “positive,” strengthening the Sunni alliance.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Israel received prior warning of the plan and gave its blessing.

Israel will not suddenly become an honorary partner in the Sunni bloc, but it will be well-placed on the sidelines, not a complete outsider. Saudi Arabia can no longer deny some kind of contact with Israel.

Interestingly, on Monday, Hamad al-Sharifi, a former Iraqi diplomat visiting Israel as the guest of the Foreign Ministry, told The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon that Israel was making a mistake in allowing secret visits by Arab officials: “I am saying this to everyone I meet, ‘Don’t accept secret visits, secret visits won’t achieve anything.

In order for the barriers to be broken, the visits should be done in full public view.”

THAT THE Saudi monarch also traveled to Turkey this week, while Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman visited Jordan’s King Abdullah II, is not coincidental.

The Saudis want Ankara and Cairo to warm their very tepid relationship – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan does not even officially recognize Sisi’s government but the ousted Muslim Brotherhood regime of Mohamed Morsi, as Singer pointed out.

As a noteworthy aside, Reuters on Wednesday reported that police in Jordan sealed the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Amman. It is part of the same battle against Islamist extremism.

The Saudis, and their allies, are acutely aware that the borders and bridges of the Middle East are more blurred than ever.

Iran openly backs President Bashar Assad in Syria, and while most Western eyes have focused on events there, particularly since the waves of immigrants began flooding European shores, other conflicts are taking place that could easily spill over.

Iran has also traditionally offered support to Armenia, and particularly since the sanctions were lifted in the wake of the nuclear deal, has signed lucrative energy and construction deals there.

Historically and ethnically, Turkey has stronger ties with Azerbaijan.

Although the cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh seems to be faring better than the one in Syria, a flare-up resulting in a clash between Iran and Turkey is not out of the question.

The Saudis, like it or not, seem set to play an increasing diplomatic role as long as the 80-year-old King Salman rules.

The bridge is still a long way from being built. And if its construction does eventually go ahead, much water will flow under it before it will be clear whether or not it will be a bridge of peace over very troubled waters. Still, as Boaz Bismuth put it in Israel Hayom: “In our stormy Middle East we have become used to the principle that ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend.’ Considering the Egyptian announcement that, after years, it will return the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, perhaps we should adopt the new rule that ‘My friend’s friend is my friend.’ But because we are in the Middle East, perhaps we should adopt the saying with eyes open.”

In the meantime, along with the upbeat Seder night classic “Dayenu” (“It would have sufficed”), I found myself singing the song from the pre- Six Day War period immortalized by the Dudaim: “Anahnu Na’avor” (“We shall pass”).

“We will pass, in darkness and in light With a blue-and-white flag, the Straits of Tiran.”

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