MANAMA, Bahrain — Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met on Tuesday with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and the prime minister, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, during his landmark trip to the tiny Gulf state — the first by an Israeli premier.
“I think we discussed many ways to build new bridges and architecture for a stronger and more stable region. I expect to continue the excellent relationship between us,” Bennett told the king.
According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the Bahraini monarch hailed the “historic day,” noting Bennett is the first Israeli premier to visit the kingdom.
“Because of [Bennett’s] determination and leadership, this was a productive and successful visit,” he was quoted as saying in a statement. “I thank you for coming here.”
Bennett’s office said his tete-a-tete with the king extended beyond the allotted time, leaving no time for their teams to meet.
Arriving earlier at the crown prince’s office in Manama, he was welcomed by a military band playing “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem.
“All responsible nations must make an effort to achieve peace,” the crown prince said, according to a statement from Bennett’s office.
“Not that there has ever been a war between us, but relations between our countries have not been sound.”
Bennett thanked Al Khalifa for the “warm and generous welcome.”
“I see a very big opportunity here,” he said. “This is the first official visit by an Israeli prime minister to Bahrain. I come from Israel with a spirit of goodwill, cooperation, of standing together in the face of common challenges, and I think our goal in this visit is to turn this peace from a peace between governments to a peace between people, and convert it from something ceremonial to something meaningful.”
Israeli anthem Hatikva at the entry to the Bahrain Prime minister office pic.twitter.com/t7LI079ob0
— Tal Schneider טל שניידר تال شنايدر (@talschneider) February 15, 2022
Bahrain normalized ties with Israel in late 2020 as part of the Abraham Accords, a series of agreements between Israel and Arab states backed by Washington.
Bennett visited the other Gulf state in the Abraham Accords, the United Arab Emirates, in December.
The premier also met with Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani; Industry, Commerce and Tourism Minister Zayed bin Rashid Al Zayani; and Transportation and Telecommunications Minister Kamal bin Ahmed Mohammed.
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said the men discussed partnerships and various ideas relating to the economy, technology and innovation, as well as making use of the two countries’ geographical advantages to improve transporting goods between Asia and Europe, among other things.
They also discussed economic opportunities for entrepreneurs and business owners, both Jews and Muslims, the statement said.
Bennett praised the relations between the ministers in the Israeli government and their Bahraini counterparts.
“Thank you, my friends, for such a warm and generous welcome,” he said at the start of the meeting.
“This is the first official visit of an Israeli prime minister to Bahrain, but it is not just a symbolic visit,” he said. “My purpose in this visit is to mold more content into the Abraham Accords in trade, interpersonal relationships and in all aspects. I look forward to the rest of the day.”
Bennett later spoke to Bahraini university students and presented his plan to bolster relations between the two countries. He also fielded questions from the audience.
“The fault lines [in the Middle East] used to be between Arabs and Israelis. But now, the fault lines are between agents of terror and chaos — and people of hope,” he said.
“You see, the future of Israel’s relations with the Middle East — they don’t just depend on declarations, They rely on real connections. Between people,” the premier added, urging the students to visit Israel.
“The Middle East is changing and I am convinced that Israel’s growing friendships with Bahrain and other countries in the region — are a leading force in the profound change.”
Among those in the audience were several Saudi reporters, who came to cover the speech and the Q&A session. They were presented to the Israeli media before entering the hall. Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have diplomatic relations, but have maintained long-held clandestine ties.
Bennett’s trip comes under the shadow of ongoing negotiations between world powers and Iran, a common enemy of Israel and Bahrain.
In an interview with a Bahraini paper published Tuesday morning, Bennett said that Israel would confront Iran and its proxies in the region and aid its allies.
“We will fight Iran and its followers in the region night and day. We will aid our friends in strengthening peace, security and stability, whenever we are asked to do so,” Bennett told the state-linked Al-Ayyam broadsheet in an interview published in Arabic.
Bahrain’s ruling Sunni minority fears Iranian influence over the country’s Shiite majority, which has been historically excluded from decision-making. Iran has also unofficially backed revolutionary groups in Bahrain over the years.
Israel sees tightening its relationship with its Gulf Arab allies as an important step in its regional struggle with Tehran, Bennett said.
“Iran supports terrorist groups active in your region and in our region for the sake of one goal. Iran seeks to destroy moderate states that care for the welfare of their people and work toward security and peace, replacing them with bloodthirsty terrorist groups,” Bennett charged.
Separately, the premier met Tuesday morning with the local Bahraini Jewish community. Bennett called the Jewish community “family,” saying that they play a special role in advancing the normalization process between the Jewish state and Bahrain.
“I come from Israel with goodwill, with warm friendship between the two peoples, and I’m sure you can be a remarkable bridge between Bahrain and Israel,” Bennett said.
Israel’s ambassador to Bahrain, Eitan Naeh, Jewish community president Ebrahim Nonoo, and Jewish community member and former Bahraini ambassador to the US Houda Nonoo were also present.
Bahrain’s tiny Jewish community, about 50 people, has practiced its faith behind closed doors since 1947, when the Gulf country’s only synagogue was destroyed in disturbances at the start of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But when Bahrain normalized ties with Israel, it opened everything up, with the small synagogue in the heart of the capital renovated at a cost of $159,000.
Bennett also met with the commander of the US Fifth Fleet Vice Admiral Bradford Cooper, and praised the cooperation between the US and Israeli militaries, which, he said, contributes to the security of both countries. according to a statement from his office.
Bennett added that the presence of the US Fifth Fleet is a significant factor in maintaining regional stability against various security threats and that he looks forward to increased cooperation between the US’s regional allies.
Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.