Bahraini opposition blasts normalization deal with Israel

Leading group calls agreement ‘illegitimate’; unlike UAE, which saw little backlash to accord with Jerusalem, Bahrain has history of internal political opposition

Combination image shows (L) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairing the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020, and (R) King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, speaking with another delegate during the 40th Gulf Cooperation Council summit held at the Saudi capital Riyadh on December 10, 2019. (Ronen Zvulun and Fayez Nureldine/Various Sources/AFP)
Combination image shows (L) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairing the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020, and (R) King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, speaking with another delegate during the 40th Gulf Cooperation Council summit held at the Saudi capital Riyadh on December 10, 2019. (Ronen Zvulun and Fayez Nureldine/Various Sources/AFP)

Some members of Bahrain’s opposition and civil society condemned on Friday Manama’s announcement that it had agreed to normalize relations with Israel.

US President Donald Trump’s announcement made Bahrain the second Gulf country to establish open ties with Israel in less than a month, following the neighboring United Arab Emirates.

“The Bahraini decision to normalize with the Zionist enemy is illegitimate from both sides — because the Bahraini government does not possess the legitimacy to normalize, and because the Zionist entity is itself illegitimate,” al-Wefaq, once Bahrain’s largest official political party, said in a statement.

Al-Wefaq, whose constituency is largely composed of Shi’ite Bahrainis, controlled 18 out of 40 seats in Bahrain’s parliament before the Arab Spring. The government dissolved the party in 2016, forcing many of its leaders into exile.

While Shiites make up around 70 percent of the kingdom’s Muslim residents, the ruling monarchy is Sunni, and enjoys close ties with many of the region’s other Sunni states. The ruling elites are firmly allied with Saudi Arabia in its rivalry with Shiite Iran, even as the Bahrain’s Shiites have familial, linguistic and political ties with Tehran going back decades.

In this January 3, 2015, file photo, a masked Bahraini anti-government protester holds a picture of jailed Shiite cleric Sheik Ali Salman, the head of the opposition al-Wefaq political group, as riot police fire tear gas canisters during clashes in Bilad Al Qadeem, Bahrain. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)

Some Bahraini civil society groups came out against the normalization deal, and the top hashtags trending on the kingdom’s social media were #Bahrainis_Against_Normalization and #Normalization_Is_Betrayal.

“Bahrainis see Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Palestine. Those who normalize are traitors…the Bahraini government does not reflect popular opinion,” said Baqer Darwish, who directs the Bahrain Forum for Human Rights.

Opposition groups in Bahrain also condemned the UAE decision to normalize relations with Israel when it was announced last month.

Eight “political societies,” which serve as de facto political parties in Bahrain, signed a statement demanding that the Bahraini government condemn the UAE normalization deal, officially known as the Abraham Accords. The parties ranged from leftists, to al-Wefaq, to the Bahrain branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The societies that signed this statement reject all forms of normalization with the Zionist entity and demand that the government of Bahrain declare its rejection of these attempts in line with the popular position,” they wrote in a joint statement.

It remains unclear how the majority of the Bahraini public will respond to the normalization deal, but some surveys indicate there could be little support for the accord.

A 2017 poll by the Washington Institute found that only around 15% of both Sunnis and Shiites in Bahrain supported diplomatic overtures to the Jewish state.

A collection of 25 civil society organizations — including the country’s General Federation of Labor Unions — also released a statement opposing the UAE normalization deal. Some of the same organizations, such as the Bahraini Democratic Youth Society, have come out against Friday’s deal as well.

In response to the social media campaign in Bahrain against normalization, senior Palestinian Liberation Organization official Hanan Ashrawi wrote on Twitter, “To the incredible, honorable people of Bahrain: we are overwhelmed & heartened by your support & solidarity. We never doubted your genuine commitment to Palestine.”

When the UAE announced in mid-August that it had reached a deal to normalize relations with Israel, there was little domestic outcry.

While a June 2020 Washington Institute survey found that 80% of Emiratis opposed allowing UAE companies to do business with Israel, there are few independent civil society organizations and political groups to channel dissent.  The country saw few demonstrations even at the height of the Arab Spring.

Bahrain, however, has a long history of political mobilization. For years, independent media, human rights groups, and opposition political parties were given limited freedom to dissent, provided they avoided crossing certain red lines.

Bahraini anti-government protesters clash with plainclothes police firing tear gas during clashes in Sanabis, Bahrain, February 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

Many of these groups — which included Islamists, Ba’athists, and secularists — joined a revolutionary coalition during the Arab Spring which sought to overthrow Bahrain’s monarchical government. After weeks of demonstrations, a Saudi-led military intervention crushed the uprising.

A state crackdown beginning in 2016 dissolved the country’s only independent media outlet, al-Wasat, and systematically dismantled the country’s opposition.

In this October 11, 2014, file photo, Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the main Shiite opposition group Al-Wefaq, explains why his and other opposition groups are refusing to participate in upcoming elections at a press conference in Manama, Bahrain. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)

Al-Wefaq leader Ali Salman was sentenced to life in prison, allegedly for spying on behalf of Bahraini rival Qatar.

Despite that, in 2019, several Bahraini parliamentarians came out strongly against Israeli participation in a commercial conference in Manama.

Minor protests took place in the kingdom, leading the Israelis to cancel their official presence.

Israelis later attended a June workshop in Manama sponsored by the United States in an official capacity.

In this June 25, 2019, photo released by Bahrain News Agency, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner talks to the audience during the opening session of the ‘Peace to Prosperity’ workshop in Manama, Bahrain. (Bahrain News Agency via AP)

Perhaps anticipating a similar backlash, Manama issued a decree last week putting limits on how much elected officials can criticize government policy.

The decree banned lawmakers from giving speeches in the Bahraini parliament which contain “criticism, blame, or accusation, or include statements that violate the constitution or the law, violate the dignity of persons or institutions, or harm the supreme interest of the country.”

The Bahraini parliament issued a statement on Friday welcoming normalization with Israel.

“We confirm that this step is in the interest of the regional security, stability and prosperity. It is in harmony with the true Bahraini approach, our long history of promoting openness and coexistence with all, and Bahrain’s social cohesion between different races and religions,” the parliament said in a statement carried by the country’s state news service.

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