Israeli and Iranian warships in the Suez Canal

Egypt could have prevented the Iranian warships from entering the Suez Canal by repeating the claim it made in the 1950s to Israel, namely that the ships present a threat to its defense.

Iranian frigate (warship) 'IS Alvand' in Suez AP 311 (photo credit: AP)
Iranian frigate (warship) 'IS Alvand' in Suez AP 311
(photo credit: AP)
It seems that there was no formal request from Israel requesting that Egypt deny passage to the two Iranian warships via the Suez canal. If indeed so, such reticence was wise on Israel’s part. In the long term, the principle that the Suez Canal should be open to all vessels at all times is of fundamental importance to the Jewish State and is worth enduring the discomfort of seeing the Iranian naval flag flying off of Israel's coast.
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The Suez Canal is sovereign Egyptian territory; unlike international straits such as Gibraltar and Tiran, the Canal is under Egyptian jurisdiction and does not form a part of the open sea. Nevertheless, Egypt allows all nations to use the Canal - in exchange for a hefty fee. The international agreement embodying this undertaking by Egypt was signed in 1888 in Constantinople.
At the time the treaty was signed, Queen Victoria reigned in England and the Khedives ruled in Egypt, but it has been in force ever since and was reaffirmed by all of Egypt’s successive governments. The 1888 treaty applies in times of war as in peace and applies to warships as well as commercial traffic.
It was on the basis of this treaty that, from 1948 till 1979, Israelunsuccessfully demanded that Israeli ships be allowed passage throughthe Canal. In the 1950s, a trial Israeli ship, the Bat Galim, wasdetained and its crew arrested by the Egyptian authorities. Egypt basedits right to prevent passage of Israeli ships on Article X of the 1888treaty which stated that the right of all states to use the Canalshould not interfere with "the defense of Egypt and the maintenance ofpublic order." Israel managed to obtain a UN Security Councilresolution supporting Israel's claim of right of passage through theCanal.
This Security Council resolution earned its niche in the history of theMiddle East conflict as being the only one condemning an Arab state.However it was ignored, and Egypt continued to deny Israeli vessels theuse of the Canal, maintaining its claim that allowing passage would beharmful to the country’s defense. Only since signing the 1979 Treaty ofPeace has Egypt allowed Israeli vessels to use the Canal.
There is little doubt that the Iranian flotilla was sent as an act ofprovocation and is more of a political act than a military one. Adecades-old frigate and a supply ship are not a naval threat to Israel.It is highly unlikely that Iran would try and defy the blockade of Gazausing one naval vessel and no air support.
Israel does not welcome any Iranian naval presence in the area and it’sa safe bet to assume that NATO fleets and the Mediterranean-basedAmerican Sixth Fleet are equally unenthusiastic. It is also doubtfulthat the Arab States welcome such a presence or that the Turkish navalcommand supports Iran’s flagrant flying of its flag.
So in summary, even though Israel would certainly be more content withnot witnessing an Iranian naval presence in the Mediterranean, in thecontext of the Canal’s freedom of passage principle it would be bestfor Israel to continue to keep a low profile on the issue and allowother countries to take the initiative.
The writer teaches international law at Hebrew University and is a former legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry.