And where is the Knesset?

The recent transfer of the islands Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to Saudi Arabia has caused a political turmoil in the neighbouring country. Not so in Israel. This is to an extent understandable. According to international law, the Straits of Tiran should be open to navigation for all states. It follows that no country has the right to seal the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba through control over the two islands. This is something that Egypt acknowledged already back in 1950. Back then, the Egyptians even committed before the Americans that their presence in the islands would not hamper free navigation for Israeli vessels. Fate had different plans. Egypt ultimately did close the straits and war erupted. Now it is the Saudis who provide the same reassurances to Israel and to the United States.

There is no reason why not to believe the Saudis. The regional security situation largely differs nowadays from that in the midst of the previous century. Nevertheless, it is a point of fact, that from now on, if a crisis erupts around the Straits, Israel will have to deal mainly with Saudi Arabia and not with Egypt.

This constitutes a major development, bearing political and strategic repercussions. It is not by accident that Israel opposed in the past such a transfer. It is true that in the present instance, it is doubtful how far such an Israeli opposition could go. Egypt, needy for the financial Saudi support, would not be ready to retreat from the endeavour.

Israel could have though stressed to the Egyptians the importance of their deal with the Saudis as an amendment to the Camp David accords, necessitating a Knesset approval. In that way, the issue would be brought before the Israeli Parliament. A public discourse would have started among the Israeli public on whether it is better for Israel to have Egypt or Saudi Arabia as the main player in the opposite side. This is something that the Israeli government did not do, possibly wary of any unexpected repercussions any Knesset intervention might entail for the Egyptian-Saudi agreement itself.

Yet, even if these fears proved valid, by denying the Knesset any role, the government only managed to put another nail to the coffin of parliamentary intervention in issues relating to the Camp David accords. The Egyptian-Saudi agreement comes to be added in a number of previous incidents where Egypt altered the conditions of the accords and Israel opted to react only on a governmental level. For example, in 2011, it was the Israeli government and not the Knesset which sanctioned the entrance of Egyptian armed forces to Sinai. Quite interestingly, the then Knesset Speaker, Reuven Rivlin, instructed the Knesset Legal Advisor, Eyal Yinon, to examine whether the Knesset should also have a role in the approval of the matter.

Indeed, in Israel, constitutional custom ordains that international agreements and their amendments are to be brought before the Knesset. This is true also for the Camp David accords. In 2005 the Knesset approved their amendment on account of the Israeli withdrawal from the Philadelphi corridor in Gaza.

When it comes to issues affecting the long-term geopolitical relations in the region, like these posed by the Egyptian-Saudi agreement, any Knesset intervention becomes not a technicality but a democratic imperative. The sovereign people must have a saying.

In the era introduced by the 9/11 attacks, governments dealt with issues pertaining to national security, with no parliamentary intervention. This was the case with the Administration in the United States. This was the case with Israel and issues like targeted killings or the Gaza blockade. Nevertheless, denying the Congress a saying in the Libya intervention, President Obama only recently stated that the handling of the intervention and of its aftermath, was the worst mistake of his presidency.

In this sense, once state agreements come to the foreground, the necessity for a more increasing role for the Knesset does not have to be perceived as an opportunistic adventure, but as a window to further develop the political and legal discourse. Ultimately, this is how democracy gets stronger and together with it, also the people’s trust in the state and its institutions.

About the Author
The writer, currently in King's College London Dickson Poon School of Law, is former member of the Knesset Legal Department in charge of international and constitutional issues