Bahrain informed Israel more than two years ago that it was interested in normalizing relations, an Israeli TV station claimed Sunday, amid persistent reports that Israel has been close to establishing ties with an Arab state.
According to a report on Israel’s Channel 13 news, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa held a clandestine meeting with former foreign minister Tzipi Livni on the sidelines of the 2017 Munich Security Conference.
During the meeting, Khalid reportedly told Livni that the king of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, had decided to move toward normalized relations with Israel and asked her to convey the message to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which she did.
The report quoted unnamed senior Israeli officials. Livni refused to comment, Channel 13 said. The report did not specify why the breakthrough had not occurred.
The report comes as Israel pushes to expand its ties with Arab and Muslim nations. Last month Netanyahu traveled to the Muslim African nation of Chad to announce the restoration of relations.
While there, Netanyahu said that the move had the support of several unnamed Arab nations.
“It’s a joint effort to break the wall of opposition in the Arab and Muslim world,” he said. “First you penetrate the Arab world, and that helps you to penetrate the Muslim countries. The big difference is that you have a clear process of normalization with the Arab world, though it is not complete and not formal, and with that you go to the [non-Arab] Muslim world.”
In November, Bahrain denied reports that Netanyahu was scheduled to visit the Gulf state.
“There is no plan for a visit of Israel’s prime minister,” Khalid told the London-based daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat. “There are no communications regarding [a visit]. The reality is nothing has happened.”
The Bahraini official’s comment came days after Hebrew-language news sites reported that Israel was working to normalize ties with Bahrain, citing an unnamed senior official.
At least one site also recently reported that officials in Jerusalem assessed that Bahrain would be the next Arab country without formal diplomatic ties with Israel to host Netanyahu.
In October, the prime minister made a surprise visit to Oman and met Omani leader Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Muscat.
Despite his denial of an imminent breakthrough, the top Bahraini diplomat said that if a visit for Netanyahu were planned, the Gulf country would “not hesitate to announce it.”
Israel and Bahrain do not have diplomatic relations, but are said to have solid clandestine ties. Both countries see in Iran — Hezbollah’s key sponsor — a strategic threat.
In December, in a rare instance of public support for Israel, Khalid expressed support for Israel’s operation to expose and destroy Hezbollah’s cross-border tunnels.
“Is Terrorist Hezbollah’s digging of the tunnels under Lebanon’s border not a flagrant threat to Lebanon’s stability, which it shares responsibility for? Who bears responsibility when neighboring countries take upon themselves to eliminate the threat they face?” he wrote on his Twitter account, in Arabic.
In 2016, Bahrain and several other Gulf countries blacklisted Hezbollah as a terror group.
Last May, the Bahraini foreign minister appeared to defend Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria.
“As long as Iran continues the current status quo of its forces and rockets operating in the region, any country — including Israel — has the right to defend itself by eliminating the source of danger,” Khalid posted on his Twitter account at the time, hours after Israel hit Iranian assets in Syria.
Arab officials rarely offer a public defense of Israel.
Economy Minister Eli Cohen has said he had received an invitation to attend a technology-related conference in Bahrain later in the year.
More than two decades ago, then-environmental protection minister Yossi Sarid visited Bahrain, where he met Bahraini foreign minister Mohammed bin Mubarak al-Khalifa and participated in regional talks on environmental issues.