Reporter's notebook'Israel' appears twice on my official conference tag

At economic peace summit, being an Israeli in Bahrain feels almost normal

Despite the lack of formal diplomatic ties between Manama and Jerusalem, Israeli guests are not only being welcomed in the Gulf kingdom; we’re receiving VIP treatment

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, right, at the opening dinner of the Peace to Prosperity workshop in Bahrain, June 24, 2019 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, right, at the opening dinner of the Peace to Prosperity workshop in Bahrain, June 24, 2019 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

MANAMA, Bahrain — OK, the bad news first: The State of Israel and the Kingdom of Bahrain are not about to establish diplomatic relations. Not this week, in the immediate aftermath of the US-led Peace to Prosperity economic workshop hosted here, and nor probably in the months, or even years, to come.

For now, a peace deal with the Palestinians remains the ultimate glass ceiling that needs to be smashed before any Gulf state is ready to normalize ties with Israel.

But here’s the good news: that glass ceiling is getting some serious buffeting this week. The exceedingly warm way in which Israelis are being received here is a remarkable testament to how times have changed. A small group of citizens of what was once denounced as the “Zionist enemy” has been welcomed with open arms in Bahrain.

Given the Palestinian boycott of the Peace to Prosperity workshop, the White House invited no Israeli officials. But Israeli members of the press, the business community and civil society who have made their way to this tiny island nation are being treated like VIPs. If formal normalization remains elusive, Israeli-Bahraini ties, on a personal level, have almost looked… well, normal.

We journalists noticed how courteously the Bahrainis were treating us even before we took off for Manama. The authorities in the kingdom didn’t hesitate when the US administration asked for a number of Israeli reporters to be accredited to the event. The last time Israeli journalists were officially invited to Bahrain was a quarter century ago. And when some of us ran into trouble with our visa applications, we were helped in a quick and unbureaucratic manner.

Employees offering refreshments to delegates of the Peace to Prosperity workshop in Bahrain, June 24, 2019 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

Upon landing in Bahrain, Israeli journalists — both those who traveled on their foreign passports and those who entered the country with their Israeli documents — were escorted by friendly officials from the plane to the front door of their hotel. We skipped the long lines at passport control, and our Bahraini helpers even collected our suitcases and brought to them us while we waited in a VIP lounge at the airport.

To be fair, all delegates attending the Tuesday-Wednesday workshop received this kind of treatment. But Israelis getting exactly the same care as Jordanians, Emiratis and Saudis in an Arab country cannot be taken for granted.

In Bahrain, this week at least, I was happy to discover, officialdom does not appear to shy away from using the word “Israel”; it features twice on my official conference badge, and no one has batted an eye.

In fact, in a certain way we Israelis journalists have been treated slightly better than our colleagues. While reporters from other countries received press passes, we were given credentials of delegates, which has guaranteed us better access to some of the conference’s events.

Even on the streets of Manama, far away from the US-sponsored workshop, no one has said a bad word upon realizing he or she was interacting with an Israeli. Everyone we’ve met, from the proverbial cab driver to the vendor at the Manama souk, has been most friendly.

On Tuesday night, after the opening session, we were invited to the opening dinner. Seated not far away from US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, senior adviser to the US president Jared Kushner, and the Bahraini crown prince, Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, we were served sea bass with courgette, shish tawouk, traditional lamb machbous, slow-roasted short-rib, truffle jus — and hummus, of course.

Those of us who strictly observe Jewish dietary laws were offered grilled fish, wrapped in aluminum foil so it wouldn’t come into contact with the aforementioned nonkosher delicacies. And lest we feel isolated, we were joined for an open and animated conversation by the crown prince’s communication adviser, Isa Bin AbdulRahman al-Hammadi.

A jovial man dressed in traditional Arab garb, al-Hammadi — a former minister in the Bahraini government — told us we could ask him anything… provided the conversation was kept off the record. Because as normal as it has felt to be an Israeli in Bahrain this week, full normalization between our two countries has yet to be achieved.

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