Analysis'I'll eat my hat' if Bahraini-Israeli ties go public

Despite hype, experts doubt Bahrain-Israel ties ready for prime time

Conflict-ridden kingdom has little incentive to squander political capital when it already gets what it needs from Israel on the sly

Dov Lieber

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)

Reports this month have indicated the island kingdom of Bahrain will soon take steps to normalize ties with Israel, ending seven decades of a diplomatic boycott of the Jewish state.

And some experts who spoke with The Times of Israel say they have noticed a tendency in recent years for Bahrain to speak publicly about its relations with Israel.

However, at the same time, analysts argue it’s unlikely Bahrain would normalize ties with the Jewish state without any serious developments in the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.

By normalizing relations with Israel, Bahrain, a Sunni monarchy struggling to hold its grip over the Shiite majority populace, would bleed too much political capital, they said, while getting nothing in return that it can’t get from Israel now, including business and security deals made under the table or through third parties.

The current discussion over Bahrain-Israel ties improving revolves around statements made by Rabbi Marvin Hier, who is the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, California, and by the associate director of the center Rabbi Abraham Cooper, both of whom met with the Bahraini king in Manama, the tiny Persian Gulf state’s capital, on February 26.

Hier told The Times of Israel last week that Bahraini monarch Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa expressed his opposition to the Arab boycott of Israel, and is ready to allow his citizens to visit the Jewish state freely.

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)

Since then, reports in Al-Monitor and the Qatari-owned Middle East Eye have said Bahrain plans to send business delegations to Israel before the year’s end.

On Saturday, the Times of London carried a statement from the Bahraini Embassy in London in what seemed to be the first public admission that Bahrainis are free, under Bahraini law, to visit the Jewish state.

“The kingdom of Bahrain has no issue or problem with any of its citizens or residents practicing their religion or visiting family or friends wherever that may be — which, of course, includes the State of Israel,” the statement said.

According to a spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Bahrainis are allowed to visit Israel after applying for a special visa.

Bahrain has not denied the rabbis’ statements. Israel has not commented on the reports.

Should Bahrain-Israel ties come out into the open, it would represent a huge victory for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who frequently touts his government’s unofficial ties with Sunni states.

Bahrain, a country of around 1.4 million citizens, would presumably open the gates for other, more powerful Gulf countries to follow suit.

Netanyahu earlier in September hailed Israel’s “best-ever” ties with Arab states, but did not elaborate.

The prime minister in the past has expressed his desire for normalization with the Arab states to precede peace with the Palestinians, arguing that peace with the Palestinians is presently untenable due to the current war-swept state of the Middle East.

The stated Arab position for decades has demanded Israel make peace with Palestinians before normalization.

Israel ‘romanticizing’ relations with the Gulf

Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher for Iranian and Gulf affairs at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, was keen to “pour cold water” on excitement over the reports.

Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher for Iranian and Gulf affairs at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (Courtesy)

Guzansky, a former member of the National Security Council for prime ministers Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu, said “I’ll eat my hat” if and when Bahraini delegations publicly come to Israel.

So far, he said, he has seen “nothing new.”

“There’s a lot of romanticism around relations with the Gulf for various reasons, political and others,” he said, adding it was stoked by the prime minister, who wants to prove he can improve relations with Arab states.

“There is some substance, with meetings and cooperation. But it’s not the magnitude it seems sometimes,” he added, saying he had seen the cooperation first-hand while serving in multiple governments.

Bahrainis, he noted, have been coming into Israel for years, for business, pleasure or religious pilgrimage. Israelis too, have been traveling to Bahrain.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in New York on September 19, 2017 (Avi Ohayun)

Wikileaks documents showed that as far back as 2005, the Bahraini king was boasting of his ties with the Israeli espionage agency the Mossad. 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.

According to Guzansky, it’s likely nothing has changed on that front.

“For anything to come outside of the closet, something must move with the Palestinians,” he said.

Israel and the Palestinians haven’t sat at the negotiating table since 2014.

He noted that tensions in the Gulf now are high, as a Saudi-led coalition continues to boycott the powerful Gulf nation of Qatar, and Iran, Bahrain’s neighbor and Israel’s sworn enemy, continues to seek further influence in the region.

Hier said the Bahraini king made it clear that shared opposition toward Iran was bringing his country closer to Israel.

Guzansky argued that, regardless of whether that is true, Bahrain still has no reason to make its ties with Israel public, as such a move would not contribute to the joint struggle against the Islamic Republic.

Guzansky said that there was a notable increase in the Bahrainis publicly talking about their ties with Israel, which he said it could be Manama trying to get the public used to the idea of sitting in a room with Israelis.

However, he also said Bahrain might simply be airing its ties with Israel as a public relations stunt.

In 2011, Bahrain, with the help of Saudi Arabia, violently suppressed its Arab Spring uprising.

“From time to time, Bahraini leaders meet with Jews in Washington to show the Americans we get along. It shows they are moderate and pragmatic, and they talk to Jews and Israelis. I think this is the main thing. It’s not new and it has been going for years now,” he said.

He pointed out that a member of the Bahraini royal family visits the country’s small Hanukah celebration every year, and the regime makes a point of treating the tiny Jewish community well.

Jews and sheikhs celebrate Hanukkah in Bahrain, December 24, 2016 (Screen capture: YouTube)

However, the kingdom has also come under fire for violently suppressing opposition, including putting down a brief Arab Spring uprising in 2011. Since then, Shiite groups have continued to protest the regime’s powerful grip on the country, leading to perpetual low-level unrest.

A test balloon?

Hier revealed the king’s alleged opposition to boycotting Israel seven months after their original meeting in Manama.

Why did he take so long to get out the word? Hier told The Times of Israel that he was ready to talk about that discussion only after receiving “a clear signal” from the king that the royal meant business. In this case, the signal was Bahraini Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa’s presence at a large event for the Weisenthal Center earlier this month, and also his visit to the unabashedly pro-Israeli Museum of Tolerance, also located in Los Angeles.

The king, with the help of the Wiesenthal Center, plans to build his own museum of tolerance in Bahrain.

Hier, who has met with other Arab leaders, was full of praise for the Bahraini king, telling The Times of Israel that the monarch “is far advanced in his thinking from other leaders in the region. There is no comparison. The others are much more cautious.”

Miriam Goldman, expert on the Arab Gulf countries with Britain-based security firm LE Beck International. (Courtesy)

Miriam Goldman, an expert on the Arab Gulf countries with Britain-based security firm LE Beck International, agreed with Guzansky’s assessment that Bahrain is still unlikely to normalize ties with Israel without a serious development in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

She said that the Palestinian issue is still very dear to Bahrain and it is unlikely the regime would risk so much political capital.

“Even authoritarian governments need to consider their populations,” she said. She noted Iran and Hezbollah use the Palestinian issue to legitimize their actions in the region and said Bahrain wouldn’t want to hand them easy political leverage.

“The really big question,” she said, “is whether this will encourage the government of Israel to change its own possibilities.”

Some have put forward the idea that Bahrain’s foot-dipping into the waters of naturalization with Israel is actually a test case ordered by Saudi Arabia.

“I think it’s plausible,” said Goldman of the theory, noting that Saudi and Bahraini foreign policy “are very closely aligned.”

Yet, she added, “if it’s a test case, it could be for relations with Israel post a deal [with the Palestinians].”

And while she said it would be a “huge change” if Bahraini business delegations would openly come to Israel, she noted the decision could easily be reversed.

Both Qatar and Oman once had Israeli trade offices in their territories, she noted, but each closed the Israeli offices in response to flareups between Palestinians and the Jewish state.

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