JERUSALEM -- Two tiny islands emerged today as the latest issue of contention in the Middle East negotiations.
The small sandbars -- known as Snapir and Tiran -- are located at the mouth of the Strait of Tiran at the southern opening of the Gulf of Aqaba. They are included in the territory to be handed back to Egypt by Israel in April.
The strait controls access to the Israeli port of Eilat and the Jordanian port of Aqaba and, with a new pipeline, a large part of the Saudi oil production that is carried by freighters through the Strait of Tiran.
In the past few months, Saudi Arabia, which holds the territory at the eastern edge of the Red Sea, has sought to reclaim sovereignty over the tiny islands that it had leased to Egypt in the 1950s to help facilitate its blockade of the straits.
An Israeli official, speaking to reporters today on the basis of no further identification, said, 'The islands could become a major issue.'
He said Israeli fears are based on recent history and that past wars have arisen because of Arab attempts to block Israeli shipping lanes.
Because of this, the official said, Israel will insist that the islands not be used by Saudi Arabia or anybody else to threaten access to the Red Sea.
The shipping channel at the point of the islands is about 400 yards across and could be easily controlled by a small force on the island.
The Israeli official said his government will insist that the multinational observer force that will watch over the Sinai after the Israeli pullout be stationed on the islands in addition to other crucial areas.
There are now no plans to station any of the 2,500-man force on the islands.
One knowledgable Israeli said the problem has arisen because the islands were simply overlooked in previous negotiations about the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territory.
The Israeli official, underlining the importance that his government attaches to freedom of navigation, said, 'The control of the islands could conceivably be a casus belli -- a cause of war.'
The islands, according to the Israelis, should revert to Egyptian control after April 25, but they are not specifically mentioned in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty nor in any of the Camp David documents which have been made public.