Bahrain’s king opposes Arab boycott of Israel, Jewish leader says
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Jerusalem confirms shift in tweet, then deletes it

Bahrain’s king opposes Arab boycott of Israel, Jewish leader says

Simon Wiesenthal Center founder says Gulf monarch ‘absolutely’ ready to allow his citizens to visit Jewish state

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa speaks during a meeting with US President Donald Trump, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa speaks during a meeting with US President Donald Trump, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The king of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, opposes the Arab states’ boycott of Israel and intends to allow citizens from his kingdom to visit the Jewish state freely, according to Rabbi Marvin Hier, who is the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, California.

Bahrain and Israel have no formal diplomatic relations.

Hier, alongside the Associate Director of the Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, met with the Bahraini king in Manama, the tiny Persian Gulf state’s capital, on February 26, 2017.

Hier told The Times of Israel in a phone interview Monday that he was in Dubai on a mission for his organization when the king personally invited him to visit his palace. While the meeting took place in February, Hier said that he was ready now to discuss its contents after receiving “a clear signal” from the king that the royal meant business. In this case, the signal was that Bahraini Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa attended a large event for the Weisenthal Center on Thursday, and also visited the unabashedly pro-Israeli Museum of Tolerance, also located in Los Angeles.

Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center meet with the King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in Bahrain on February 23, 2017. (Courtesy)

The king had members of his cabinet sitting in on the meeting with the two rabbis, Hier said.

“The king made a clear statement: ‘It’s illogical for the Arab world to boycott Israel. We must find a better way,” he said.

Asked whether he was sure the king was ready to allow Bahrainis to visit the Jewish state, Hier responded, “absolutely and unequivocally.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Sunday seemingly backed the statements by Hier, writing on its Arabic Twitter account, “Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa denounced the Arab boycott against Israel and has confirmed that Bahraini citizens are now free to visit #Israel.”

However, the tweet was quickly deleted.

Rabbi Marvin Hier speaking at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s 2015 National Tribute Dinner in Beverly Hills, Calif., March 24, 2015. (JTA/Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images)

Hier was full of praise for Bahrain’s king. He said the two continued to correspond with each other after the meeting in Manama and bonded over a shared love of the late American singer Frank Sinatra, who was a supporter of the Wiesenthal Center.

“He is a 21st-century ruler. He doesn’t want to see his country behave as other Middle Eastern countries have,” the rabbi said.

Hier, who has met with other Arab leaders, said the Bahraini king “is far advanced in his thinking from other leaders in the region. There is no comparison. The others are much more cautious. ”

“He sees, in my opinion, that there is no reason for there to be hostilities between Israel and his kingdom,” he said.

Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, waves to reporters after a meeting with French President Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, on September 8, 2015. (AP Photo/ Christophe Ena, File)

Hier added that the king “made it clear” that Bahrain and Israel could be obvious allies in their shared desire to stem Iranian influence in the region.

Bahrain, a group of islands in the Persian gulf with a population of 1.4 million, has no formal diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. However, a trickle of Israeli tourists and businessmen have been known to visit the country in recent years.

While Jerusalem and Manama have never maintained diplomatic relations, in 2005, the king boasted to an American official that his state has contacts with Israel “at the intelligence/security level (i.e., with Mossad),” according to a secret US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks. The king also indicated willingness “to move forward in other areas, although it will be difficult for Bahrain to be the first.” The development of “trade contacts,” though, would have to wait for the implementation of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the king said in the cable.

Other WikiLeaks documents show that senior officials from both countries have spoken in recent years, including a 2007 meeting between then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni and Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa in New York. In 2009, Al Khalifa also signaled that he was willing to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try to advance the peace process, but ultimately decided not to go ahead with the plan.

In 2009, Bahrain’s crown prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa penned an op-ed for the Washington Post, in which he urged Arab countries to communicate more with Israel for the sake of the peace process.

In 2016, when former president Shimon Peres died, Bahrain was the only Gulf country to publicly mourn his passing.

“We are entitled, and look forward, to the day when we see an independent state, living in peace and security, side by side with the State of Israel,” a statement from Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa read at the time.

In 2010, an Israeli hospital provided life-saving treatment to a Bahraini princess.

Netanyahu said recently that Israel is enjoying its “best-ever” relations with the Arab world.

Bahraini crown prince stands for Hatikvah

On September 14, the Simon Wiesenthal Center co-hosted an interfaith event in Los Angeles that was attended by Bahraini Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa.

During the ceremony, the prince signed The Bahrain Declaration on Religious Tolerance, a document that attacks extremism and praises religious tolerance.

Hier said that there was a debate about whether Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah, would be played at the event, as it is played at all events for his organization.

With the permission of the Bahraini delegation, which financed the event, Hatikvah was played and everyone present, including the Arab diplomats, stood in respect, Hier said.

“If the Hatikvah was a no no, [the prince] is the boss. But he knew on our part that we couldn’t tolerate that,” Hier said.

Bahrain is the only Arab Gulf state that has a synagogue. The country had a Jewish population of some 1,500 Jews in 1948. However, after the declaration of the State of Israel, many left, and almost all those who remained followed suit after 1967’s Six Day War. Today, fewer than 50 Jews remain in the country.

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