FM Ashkenazi welcomes counterpart on 'historic visit'

Bahrain FM lands in Israel for first-ever ministerial visit from Gulf nation

Flying in on first Gulf Air flight to Tel Aviv, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani to participate in tripartite meeting with Netanyahu and US Secretary Pompeo

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

FM Ashkenazi, left, welcomes Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani to Israel, November 18, 2020 (Miri Shimonovich/MFA)
FM Ashkenazi, left, welcomes Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani to Israel, November 18, 2020 (Miri Shimonovich/MFA)

Bahrain’s foreign minister landed in Tel Aviv Wednesday morning for a whirlwind visit, during which he will meet with senior Israeli officials and participate in a trilateral meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani is the first minister from the tiny island nation to visit the Jewish state. His Gulf Air flight touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport at 10:30 a.m., marking the first-ever nonstop commercial flight from Bahrain to Israel. He is joined by a senior US delegation, headed by the outgoing administration’s top peace negotiator, Avi Berkowitz.

Al-Zayani’s delegation — which includes various senior officials, including a deputy foreign minister, the head of Bahrain’s civil aviation and some journalists — was greeted at the airport by Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

In a private conversation in front of al-Zayani’s car, Ashkenazi told his Bahraini counterpart that he was very excited to welcome him to Israel. “It’s historic visit,” he said.

FM Ashkenazi, left, welcomes Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani to Israel, November 18, 2020 (Miri Shimonovich/MFA)

“For us, this is a dramatic event,” an Israeli diplomat who deals with relations with Gulf states said Tuesday. “There is great enthusiasm on their part to advance their cooperation with us — in nearly all areas,” he added, noting that during Al-Zayani’s visit, the Arab Gulf monarchy and Israel will sign a number of bilateral agreements, including in the fields of aviation and technological cooperation.

“Something like that doesn’t happen every day,” the diplomat added. “There is enormous economic potential in our ties with the UAE and Bahrain. Many here in the Foreign Ministry have worked on creating these ties for more than 15 years and are now understandably happy that they can finally talk about them openly. Wednesday’s visit by the Bahraini foreign minister is the culmination of these efforts, and should not be taken for granted.”

Last month Israeli officials, during a historic first visit to Manama, formally asked Bahrain to be allowed to open an embassy in the country. Jerusalem expects that the foreign minister’s delegation will formally give Israel the green light to open a mission during Wednesday’s trip.

Bahrain’s state-owned BNA news agency said Monday that the visit would “affirm Bahrain’s strong and permanent position in favor of supporting the peace process” and be focused on “the economic opportunities and bilateral accords with Israel.”

To some extent, al-Zayani has been the public face of Bahrain’s normalization process with Israel. He signed the so-called Abraham Accords and a “Declaration of Peace” with Israel at the September 15 signing ceremony at the White House.

On October 25, he signed eight bilateral agreements, including a “Joint Communiqué on the establishment of diplomatic, peaceful, and friendly relations” with Israel during a ceremony in Manama.

“We salute the Israeli government for its responsiveness in realizing this historic step,” he said at the time.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben Shabbat, Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz and other Bahraini and Israeli officials participate in the signing ceremony of a peace agreement between Israel and Bahrain, in Manama on October 18, 2020. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)

After departing the airport, Al-Zayani and Ashkenazi are set hold a working meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and deliver statements to the press.

In the early afternoon, President Reuven Rivlin will host the Bahraini top diplomat at his Jerusalem residence, where he will sign the visitors’ book and deliver remarks to the press.

Shortly thereafter, al-Zayani will head to the Prime Minister’s Office for a series of meetings, including a one-on-one meeting with Netanyahu and tripartite meeting with Netanyahu and Pompeo. Ashkenazi will also attend the latter meeting.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) speaks during a joint press conference with the Slovenian prime minister (unseen) after their meeting in Bled, in the foothills of the Julian Alps, August 13, 2020. (Jure Makovec/AFP)

Pompeo is currently on a seven-nation tour that includes stops in France, Turkey, Georgia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

Israeli and Bahrain will sign several bilateral agreements.

Ashkenazi and Berkowitz, the US administration’s point man for the Israel-Arab normalization, will join some of the meetings. Berkowitz’s delegation includes a handful of US senior National Security Council officials.

After another meeting with Ashkenazi at around 8:00 p.m., al-Zayani is scheduled to head back to Manama at around 10:30 p.m., after only 12 hours on the ground.

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