MANAMA, Bahrain — Even though we’d met several times, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa had not agreed to an on-the-record interview until Wednesday, when I visited his country to cover the US-led economic peace workshop.
“You remember when we first met at COP in Paris? When you approached me?” he recalled, referring to a United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2015. I was there covering Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appearance at the conference when a colleague and I spotted Khalifa and sought to engage with him.
“I wasn’t ready,” he told me this week in his suite at Manama’s posh Four Seasons hotel. “You surprised me… I should always prepare myself for talking to people, especially like you, very able journalists.”
Here in Manama, Khalifa was finally ready to grant a sit-down interview to The Times of Israel; and he spoke also with two Israeli television channels. It was the first time he had spoken on record with media outlets from Israel.
During nearly 20 minutes in our one-on-one, the foreign minister, whose full name is Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa, spoke openly of why he is optimistic about the US administration’s efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and why his country decided to host the White House’s economic workshop despite the bitter protests from Ramallah.
He stressed the importance of his government’s warm embrace of the Israeli journalists who traveled to Bahrain, and his hopes that this tiny island nation in the Gulf would be well-perceived in Israel.
“We appreciated that you [journalists] accepted our invitation. It’s been something that we always wanted to do. Because we felt that communicating to the Israelis, through your media, is an essential part of building trust in their minds of people in the Arab world who always aim for peace,” he said. “We do want the world to see Bahrain; especially you from Israel, to come and see Bahrain.”
The veteran diplomat, who has been Bahrain’s foreign minister since 2005, expressed the desire for better relations and eventually “peace” with Israel — a country he nonchalantly declared a part of the region and “there to stay.”
In fact, he wondered about why some people were surprised when, in May 2018 — following an Israeli airstrike on Iranian targets in Syria — he wrote on Twitter that as long as Tehran continues its regional aggression, “any country — including Israel — has the right to defend itself by eliminating the source of danger.”
“What’s so surprising?” he asked me, as if it was the most normal thing in the world for an Arab foreign minister to acknowledge the Jewish state’s right to defend itself.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is political and thus solvable, but it is “religious zeal” that led the ayatollahs in Tehran to “place their rockets and threats right close to your border, on Arab territory,” he posited.
“So every country affected [has the right to defend itself against such aggression], and I meant it when I said, ‘including Israel.’ Because you’re a country in the region. It has nothing to do with our issues between the Arabs and the Israelis. But [Iran] wants to exacerbate it and make it more toxic by making it religious. Everybody has the right to defend itself,” he declared.
Khalifa, 59, said that he would like to visit Israel in the future — “one day, when it’s all open and peaceful” — but was noncommittal about normalizing ties with Jerusalem in the absence of a peace deal.
“We don’t want to put the carriage before the horse. Let’s build it, we’re building the atmosphere now, with the economic prosperity,” he said.
“Diplomatic representation is symbolic, I tell you the truth,” he elaborated. “If you do diplomatic representation and you don’t have all the foundations of prosperity and cooperation, what is that diplomatic entity doing? Let’s build it. Let’s build confidence, and let’s build trust.”
Khalifa, who is considered the most pro-Israel official in the Gulf, wants Israelis “to trust that there are more than one or two or three voices in the Arab world that are aiming for peace. That they are not surrounded by enemies. But they are surrounded by people who will want to achieve a just peace that would make everybody comfortable.”
What follows is a complete transcript of our conversation, slightly edited for clarity.
The Times of Israel: First of all, I would like to thank you for your hospitality. We don’t take it for granted that Israeli citizens are being welcomed here so warmly. Was it difficult for the kingdom of Bahrain not just to allow Israelis to come here, but to treat them like VIPs?
Foreign Minister Khalifa: We treat everybody the same. And there’s no difference between any visitor to Bahrain, from any country. And we appreciate that you accepted our invitation.
It’s been something that we always wanted to do. Because we felt that communicating to the Israelis, through your media, is an essential part of building trust in their minds of people in the Arab world who always aim for peace. This is our main aim, and we always said this is one step that would lead to normalization. But we should not lump it up with normalization.
Of course it wasn’t easy, but we said it. And now we did it. And here you are in Bahrain. We do want the world to see Bahrain — especially you from Israel, to come and see Bahrain — and our people, and to see a place that you found to be very friendly, very welcoming, and we appreciate that.
As in many parts of the Arab world, we have a joint heritage of cohabitation. Jews and Arabs. We come from the same background, in the past. Whether it’s Baghdad, or the Levant, or the Maghreb, or Egypt, or Iran, or everywhere. This is where we lived together. And you saw the embodiment of that in the old synagogue. And we stress it’s an old one. It’s not something that we created because of the presence of expats. No, it’s for citizens of our country. And that means a lot to us.
Now Israel last night was seeing Bahrain on every conceivable channel. It means a lot to us. They’re seeing a real place that they can trust is a place of peace.
So let’s talk about the Peace to Prosperity workshop. It’s being boycotted by the Palestinians. But Bahrain says it’s a supporter of the Palestinians.
Well, we will continue to work with the Palestinian Authority. Historically, Bahrain has always tried to help them. And we saw a very good opportunity in this workshop for them, to benefit from it. It’s not the first economic effort being given to them. There were many in the past.
[Former US secretary of State] John Kerry did it. [Former PA prime minister] Salam Fayyad worked on it. [Japanese Foreign Minister] Taro Kono and Thailand chaired the Asian group [i.e., the Conference on Cooperation among East Asian Countries for Palestinian Development]. This [current initiative] is a very serious one, because you got the full involvement of the most important broker and player in the region, the United States of America.
And we see it as very, very important. As much as Camp David 1 was a major game changer, after the visit of [Egyptian] President [Anwar] Sadat [to Jerusalem in 1977] — if this succeeds, and we built on it, and it attracts attention and momentum, this would be the second game changer.
What about the political part of the US peace proposal?
“We haven’t seen it. We have to wait. I cannot talk about something that I don’t know. But we hope that this political plan will be also attractive to everybody. Look at the workshop. It’s very attractive. You don’t want to give an attractive offer and then come and bring something that could stall it. We want to see it continue on the same momentum. So we’ll see.”
Would anything less than a Palestinian state, based on the 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital, be a non-starter for Bahrain, or would you consider any proposal the White House publishes?
Whatever you can agree on with the Palestinians.
They made it clear that they will not accept anything but sovereignty.
Look, they agreed to [mutually] agreed [land] swaps. Let’s not forget that. Because some of the territory in the West Bank is now occupied by settlements that grew to become cities. Agreed swaps. They are willing to talk about it. We will encourage them to do that. But at the end will not be able to come and force anything on the Palestinians.
We are giving them the opportunity. If they will want to pick this opportunity, then they will make a wise decision. If not, then I don’t think there’s much to do with that chance, and we will wait for the next chance.
I am not sure whether you sounded hopeful or skeptical.
No, I am not sounding skeptical. I am sounding hopeful. I ended with a hopeful note — if we lose an opportunity now, let’s not lose our hope. Let’s aim for the future and work on the next one. Once we end one, we start to work on the next one. That’s hopeful, isn’t it? [Laughs.]
I almost want to end this interview on this positive note. But we have some other topics to talk about. For example normalization between Bahrain and Israel. Is there any chance that Israel and Bahrain would establish diplomatic relations, even if there’s no peace agreement with the Palestinians?
Look, we are committed to the Arab Peace Initiative. And we think, as much as there are shortcomings and missed opportunities by everyone here, this is one missed opportunity for Israel [but] they can always [change] their position on it.
They say maybe the Arab Peace Initiative doesn’t provide security. Well, talk to us. Talk to us about it. Come and approach us. Say: Guys, you have a good initiative, but we have one thing that worries us.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu did that. He said the idea is good but there are some issues with it.
But when did he say it? After years and years of waiting. And look at the state of the Arab world, what it’s going through now. Fine. But now we’re sticking to that. We don’t want to put the carriage before the horse. Let’s build it, we’re building the atmosphere now, with the economic prosperity. We’re taking it seriously.
I want the Israeli public to trust that there are more than one or two or three voices in the Arab world that are aiming for peace. That they are not surrounded by enemies
Diplomatic representation is symbolic, I tell you the truth. If you do diplomatic representation and you don’t have all the foundations of prosperity and cooperation, what is that diplomatic entity doing? Let’s build it. Let’s build confidence, and let’s build trust.
I talked today to one of the Israeli TV channels. And I told my interviewer, what I want to achieve is, I want to win their trust [of the Palestinians]. Maybe I won’t be able to win their hearts from the beginning, but I want them to listen to me, that I am talking straightforward with them.
And I want the Israeli public to trust that there are more than one or two or three voices in the Arab world that are aiming for peace. That they are not surrounded by enemies. But they are surrounded by people who will want to achieve a just peace that would make everybody comfortable.
Egypt was the first Arab country to have peace with Israel —
Yes, that was a game changer.
Jordan was second, in 1994. And then for a long time nothing —
Let’s not lose this opportunity. The economic [proposal], let’s build on it and build on it. Let’s see the American plan. I think we should succeed on the second, the political side. We should. So let’s aim for that. And that will be the next big thing after Camp David.
But if it doesn’t work, would it be conceivable that Bahrain would become the third country to establish formal relations [with Israel].
I don’t see that as a prerequisite for us to say that now. Because we need to wait. You’re here. You can come again. You don’t know. Maybe another field. Let’s concentrate on that [current peace initiative]. If that succeeds and continues and becomes normal, then we can talk about something else.
As Mr. Jared Kushner said, let’s leave the cliches, and talk about serious things and the lives of the people.
A few months ago, you tweeted about Israel’s right to defend itself against Iranian aggression.
What’s so surprising? Look, there is an Arab-Israeli dispute over certain matters: occupation, displacement. It’s something between us, Arabs and Israelis. And we know the parameters, we know how it can be solved. We know how to address it. And we only need to agree, with a strong will. And we can do it.
But when a foreign player comes in, and brings religion as part of this dispute, Muslims and Jews — this is toxic. This is not a religious conflict. This is not a conflict between Arabs and Jews. This is a conflict between a country and its neighborhood, that needs to be solved. It is political. The minute we enter this Jewish-Muslim conflict, we go back to ancient times. We don’t want to go back to that. We want to live today.
So they — the Iranians — came with their religious zeal, and they came to place their rockets and threats right close to your border, on Arab territory. They changed the rules of the game.
BREAKING: Foreign Ministry of Bahrain says any state in the region, "including Israel" has the right to defend itself against Iranian aggression. https://t.co/LZ2P246uWf
— Raphael Ahren (@RaphaelAhren) May 10, 2018
So every country affected [has the right to defend itself against such aggression], and I meant it when I said, “including Israel.” Because you’re a country in the region. It has nothing to do with our issues between the Arabs and the Israelis. But [Iran] wants to exacerbate it and make it more toxic by making it religious. Everybody has the right to defend itself.
Do you realize that, implicitly, you are recognizing Israel as a country that has the right to be a country.
Officially, the Kingdom of Bahrain doesn’t recognize the State of Israel.
Israel is a country. Israel is a country in the region, in the Middle East, the State of Israel.
And it’s there to stay?
And it’s there to stay, of course. Who did we offer peace to? The [Arab] Peace Initiative? We offered it to a country named the State of Israel, in the region. We did not offer it to some far-away island or some far-away country. We offered it to Israel. So we do believe that Israel is a country to stay, and we want a better relation with it, and we want peace with it. Look, I think this is something normal.
It’s normal for Israelis. I am sure that if I go to Lebanon, or even the Emirates — I wouldn’t hear these kinds of thoughts from the leaders. They might think it. But they’re not saying it.
I think they always have to have the courage to cross the threshold.
Many other Arab officials are afraid to say the things that you say. Why don’t we hear similar things from the foreign minister of the Emirates or Kuwait?
You know, people differ in their approach. We say it. We say it publicly. We don’t shy away from it. Because we know this is a principled position, and we agree to it, and we believe in it. And we know our brothers in the region do believe in it.
But maybe we are talking in a way that is our way. I don’t want to say that we’re more confident; all of them are confident, all of them are working hard. But each one has a way of expressing it, and this is our Bahraini way. We don’t shy away. We know what’s right and what’s wrong. And we know what to say, and we are confident.
Are you not afraid that you hosting Israeli citizens, and giving interviews to Israeli media, is going to be used by Iran and other hostile actors to stir up strife in your country?
No. They will try. They have been trying for the last week, if you noticed Iranian media, to stir up conflict and to stop this workshop, to kind of amass people against it. They failed. Sir, they failed. Immensely.
Bahrainis are open-minded people, people of principle. They do want to see an end to this [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, based on principles. But they are not belligerent people. They will welcome a chance to express their view to whoever they differ with. And I am sure you noticed it.
You remember when we first met at COP in Paris? When you approached me? I wasn’t ready. You surprised me. I wasn’t ready. I should always prepare myself for talking to people, especially like you, very able journalists.
Thank you for the compliment, much appreciated. Let me ask you two more questions. Prime Minister Netanyahu was in Oman last year, even though the two countries do not have diplomatic relations. Is he a welcome guest in Manama?
Well, I am sure there was a reason, between Oman and Israel, for that visit to happen, and to make it work well. If a visit of this nature will take place, it should have a meaning and it should have an aim. It’s not useful to do a visit just for the sake of a visit. The optics are nice, but they are short-lived. Let’s do an optic that would open a new era. And that’s what we aim for.
If we take a step — believe me, we don’t go back. If we take a step forward, even in the most difficult time, we don’t take a step back. So let’s do something that will not allow the elements to take us back again.
Would you like to come to Israel? Would you like to visit Jerusalem?
One day, yes. One day, when it’s all open and peaceful, I would like to come and visit, just like I will want to visit Jordan or Lebanon or Egypt. Because as I said, it [Israel] is a state in our region. It will be an opportunity that will make us feel comfortable, make us look forward as countries of the region. Yes. Let’s wait for that moment to come.