Bahrain’s Khalifa says interviews to Israelis ‘nowhere near normalization’

Bahrain’s Khalifa says interviews to Israelis ‘nowhere near normalization’

Foreign minister insists unprecedented comments to Times of Israel and other Israeli outlets nothing more than ‘sending a message’; says gulf kingdom backs two-state solution

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, right, gestures as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo leaves at the Al-Qudaibiya Palace in Manama, January 11, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool/ AP)
Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, right, gestures as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo leaves at the Al-Qudaibiya Palace in Manama, January 11, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool/ AP)

Bahrain’s foreign minister defended his decision to grant rare interviews to Israeli media outlets last week and said doing so did not mean Manama supported normalizing ties with the Jewish state.

Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa spoke to the Times of Israel and journalists from Israel’s Kan broadcaster and Channel 13 news on Wednesday, on the sidelines of the US-led Peace to Prosperity conference on the Palestinian economy.

His comments, expressing legitimacy for Israel’s existence and hopes for peace, were praised in Israel and elsewhere as groundbreaking, but also drew anger by some in the Arab world who oppose any contact with Israel until the Arab-Israeli conflict is put to rest.

“There are those who say this is normalization. This is not normalization. This is not even a step toward normalization,” he told the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channel on Friday.

“You must send the correct message to the person you want to address and solve a problem with. That is the Israeli people.”

In a wide-ranging interview on the sidelines of the US-led Peace to Prosperity conference in Manama on Wednesday, Khalifa told The Times of Israel that Israel’s existence is a fact, and that Bahrain would like peace with it. “Israel is a country in the region… and it’s there to stay, of course,” he said. “Who did we offer peace to [with] the [Arab] Peace Initiative? We offered it to a state named the State of Israel, in the region… We do believe that Israel is a country to stay, and we want better relations with it, and we want peace with it.”

Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa speaks with the Times of Israel on the sidelines of the Peace to Prosperity workshop in Manama, Bahrain, on June 26, 2019. (Courtesy)

Khalifa has long been seen as among the most pro-Israel figures in the Gulf. Last year he tweeted that he supported Israel’s right to defend itself, reflecting growing covert ties between Israel and Gulf countries, even as official contact with Jerusalem remains a third rail.

His comments to the Israeli journalists were praised by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, which said it was inviting Bahraini journalists to visit in reciprocation.

Khalifa also expressed backing for the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in comments to Russia Today shortly after the conference.

“We support the two-state solution. We support the Arab Peace Initiative which is based on the two-state solution. We support resolutions of legitimacy,” Khalifa told the Kremlin-backed TV channel.

Palestinians burn posters of US President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Hamad al-Khalifa of Bahrain in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on June 25, 2019, during a protest against the US-led Peace to Prosperity conference in Bahrain. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

“We support a Palestinian state on June 4, 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital with full sovereignty and full rights for the Palestinian people. This is our position and it has not changed.”

Khalifa’s position, backing the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership’s demand for an independent state, differs with that of US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace team, which has refused to endorse any specific formulation.

Bahrain has faced intense criticism for hosting the conference, which unveiled the economic portion of the US peace plan that envisions massive investment in infrastructure projects in West Bank, Gaza Strip and neighboring Arab countries, bit which ignored any political solution to the conflict. On Thursday, protesters in Iraq stormed the Bahrain Embassy in Baghdad to express their displeasure.

Iraqi security forces stand guard near the Bahraini embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, after protesters stormed the compound to protest the US-led peace conference hosted by Bahrain earlier in the week. June 27, 2019. (AP/Ali Abdul Hassan)

The Palestinians fiercely opposed the Peace to Prosperity conference, asserting that its economic focus sought to undermine their aspirations for statehood. They also accused the US of attempting to use the summit to normalize Israel’s status in the Arab world.

In his remarks to Russia Today, Khalifa also criticized Israel for not responding to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which offered Israel normalized relations across the Arab world in exchange for making peace with the Palestinians and withdrawing from lands conquered in 1967.

“Opinions that the Arab Peace Initiative is lacking this thing or that thing have previously been proposed. The Arab Peace Initiative was presented and we did not see any positive welcoming of it, especially from the Israeli side,” he said. “We have not even heard them say: ‘Let us talk about the Arab Peace Initiative.’ Everything we have heard is either silence, rejection, non-acceptance or this is not enough or it is not right.”

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, fifth from left, and Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, sixth from left, listen to White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, standing, during the opening session of the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in Manama, Bahrain on June 25, 2019. (Bahrain News Agency via AP)

Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to Trump, told the Qatari network Al-Jazeera that the yet-to-be-released US plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not align with the terms of the Arab Peace Initiative.

“It will be somewhere between the Arab peace initiative and between the Israeli position,” he said last week.

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