'We will continue to work with the Israeli government'

Bahrain: Netanyahu believes in peace, we look forward to working with him

FM Al-Zayani indicates Gulf kingdom unconcerned by makeup of incoming government in Jerusalem, despite presence of far-right figures

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Abdul Lateef Rashid Al Zayani, speaks to journalists in Manama on December 4, 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Abdul Lateef Rashid Al Zayani, speaks to journalists in Manama on December 4, 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

MANAMA, Bahrain — Bahrain gave a vote of confidence to Benjamin Netanyahu and his  presumptive incoming government on Sunday, as the kingdom’s foreign minister described the Likud leader as man of peace.

“Allow me at this point to congratulate Israel for the successful election that took place,” Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdul Latef Al Zayani told Israeli and Bahraini journalists during a state visit by President Isaac Herzog. “And we truly in Bahrain look forward to work with the new government under the leadership of one of the major signatories and partners of the Abraham Accords.”

Netanyahu has been piecing together a right-wing/ultra-Orthodox government, and so signing coalition deals with the far-right Otzma Yehudit, Religious Zionism, and Noam parties.

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir has pledged to seek to deport “disloyal” Arabs, impose the death penalty for those convicted of terror acts and ease security forces’ open-fire rules against Palestinian suspects. Religious Zionism chief Bezalel Smotrich has pushed for the dismantlement of the Palestinian Authority and supports annexing large parts of the West Bank without granting equal rights to Palestinians in those areas.

Zayani, however, appeared unconcerned with the notion that Netanyahu’s emerging government would harm the Abraham Accords: “We believe that he firmly believes in peace, especially as stated in the Abraham Accords, and in the principles of the Abraham Accords.”

Bahrain “will continue to work with the Israeli government to solidify the concept of peace,” Zayani pledged.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Otzma Yehudit chief Itamar Ben Gvir arrive for the swearing-in ceremony for the new Knesset, at the parliament building in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

He asserted that the Israeli people want peace, and that Netanyahu’s government would work to fulfill those aspirations.

Though Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa did not specifically mention a Palestinian state during a public statement earlier in the day alongside Herzog, Zayani said Bahrain was “unwavering” in its support for a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem.

In his prepared statements, Bahrain’s top envoy went out of his way to thank former premier Naftali Bennett and caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid for their efforts to bring peace to the region.

Zayani, like King Hamad and Herzog earlier in the day, did not bring up Iran in his prepared statement, though the threat from Tehran is a key concern for Manama.

In response to a question, the foreign minister said that Bahrain’s Iran policy is to pursue peace, and that he does not believe that the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal  between Tehran and world powers will be officially terminated.

Zayani also downplayed protests against Herzog that took place in the leadup to the visit. “The president is very welcome here,” he said, arguing that protests are perfectly normal in a “democracy.”

Freedom House calls Bahrain “one of the Middle East’s most repressive states,” accusing the regime of crushing a popular prodemocracy movement in 2011.

Bahrain’s foreign minister, Abdul Lateef Rashid Al Zayani, speaks to journalists in Manama, on December 4, 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Concerns around the protests against Herzog caused the sides to make slight changes to the president’s schedule.

Protesters in Bahrain had chanted, “Death to Israel” at rallies against the upcoming trip on Friday. The protesters were affiliated with opposition groups that are supportive of Iran, the Ynet news site reported.

Some carried signs with Herzog’s image that said “criminal” and “you are not welcome in Bahrain.” A Bahraini opposition outlet said the demonstrators burned an Israeli flag and squared off with riot police.

Local authorities allowed the anti-Israel protests to take place, but would not permit similar events during Herzog’s visit, the report said.

President Isaac Herzog (front L) and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (front R) at the Al Qudaibiya palace in Manama, December 4, 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Herzog landed in Manama on Sunday for the first-ever visit by an Israeli head of state to the small Gulf island kingdom. He and his wife, Michal, were welcomed by Zayani and Bahrain’s envoy to Israel, Khaled Yousif Al-Jalahma.

He then headed to the Al-Qudaibiyah Palace where a military band played the national anthems of both countries, as Herzog met King Hamad.

At the beginning of their meeting, the president gave the monarch a silver mezuzah. According to Herzog’s office, the two leaders discussed ways to expand the bilateral relationship.

In his public statement alongside the king, Herzog opened his remarks in Arabic, thanking the monarch for his hospitality.

Herzog also noted the Israeli business leaders in his delegation, representing organizations that include Israel’s Innovation Authority, Start-Up Nation Central, and the Israel Export Institute.

“You are at the forefront of making history in the region, where Jews and Muslims can dwell together, the sons of Abraham, and move forward in peace,” said Herzog.

Herzog’s trip was hailed by the Biden administration with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan tweeting, We welcome the historic visit… another step toward an integrated and prosperous Middle East. Grateful for the leadership and vision of His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and our Bahraini partners.”

The Israeli president’s two-day visit will also take him to the United Arab Emirates on Monday.

A Bahraini honor guard waits for the arrival of President Isaac Herzog in Manama, December 4, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Ahead of his departure from Israel, Herzog said the trip was “predominantly a message of peace in the region.”

“Another historic step in the relationship between Israel and Arab states that signed the Abraham Accords, with the hope that more and more countries will be able to join the circle of peace with the State of Israel,” Herzog said in English.

Writing in The Times of Israel on Sunday, Herzog said that he would be focusing on translating the Abraham Accords into tangible benefits for private citizens, including through a free trade deal with Bahrain.

“I believe that the single greatest opportunity facing the Middle East is a warm peace with Israel — unlocking the latent potential of partnerships with our dynamic, vibrant economy,” the president wrote. “We cherish Bahrain as a trailblazer and pioneer in this regard, setting an example for the nations of our region.”

President Isaac Herzog ahead of his visit to Bahrain, December 4, 2022. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

He also published a similar piece in Arabic in Al Ayam, Bahrain’s largest newspaper.

In the afternoon, Herzog met with members of the local Jewish community, after which he headed to an evening meeting with the Bahrain Economic Development Board.

On Monday, the president will take off for Abu Dhabi to meet with his Emirati counterpart Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi ruler. Herzog will also attend the Abu Dhabi Space Debate, a forum on space exploration policy that will also feature Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The visit takes place as the Gulf has seen recent displays of anti-Israel sentiment, cracking the façade of widespread backing for normalization in both Bahrain and the UAE. Opposition to official government policy is rare in both countries run by authoritarian regimes, but support for the Abraham Accords has been declining in both places.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa during the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 21, 2016. (Carolyn Kaster/AP/File)

Israel normalized ties with the UAE and Bahrain in 2020 as part of the US-brokered Abraham Accords. The agreement paved the way for normalization with Morocco months later.

In January, Herzog visited the UAE’s Abu Dhabi and Dubai on a two-day trip.

Last month, Netanyahu held a phone call with Bahrain’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa.

The pair expressed their desire to continue to deepen relations between the two countries, and Netanyahu invited Al Khalifa to visit Israel.

In October, a delegation of Israeli paratroopers held a joint jump over Bahrain, alongside soldiers from the Gulf nation, the UAE, and the United States to mark two years since the signing of the Abraham Accords.

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