FM Cohen to Bahraini crown prince: We expect normalization with more Arab states

Israel’s top diplomat tours headquarters of US Fifth Fleet, inaugurates new embassy during trip to Manama; Bahrain’s top diplomat reiterates backing for two-state solution

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (left) meets with Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman Al Khalifa in Manama's Gudaibiya Palace, September 4, 2023 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (left) meets with Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman Al Khalifa in Manama's Gudaibiya Palace, September 4, 2023 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

MANAMA, Bahrain — Foreign Minister Eli Cohen on Monday met with this Gulf nation’s crown prince, telling him that Israel is seeking to normalize ties with additional Arab countries.

Cohen also stressed to Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa the importance of promoting economic and civil ties between the countries, including finalizing a free trade agreement, according to the Foreign Ministry.

The two met at Manama’s Gudaibiya Palace.

Cohen had initially scheduled to meet Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. The reason for the change was not immediately clear.

Cohen also met with his Bahraini counterpart Abdullatif Al Zayani. Predictable signs of disagreement emerged during the ministers’ public statements, with Zayani announcing that the prince “reiterated the importance of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through a two-state solution as outlined in the Arab peace initiative.”

An Israeli official argued to The Times of Israel that Zayani’s statement was nothing to get excited about, saying that “the US and EU also call for a two-state solution.”

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (C) meets with Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani, September 4, 2023 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Zayani also highlighted areas of agreement, underscoring his country’s desire to expand ties in “investment, trade and other areas of cooperation.”

According to the Foreign Ministry, the two discussed “regional security issues” during their meeting, a thinly veiled reference to the Iranian threat.

Earlier Monday, Cohen visited the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet and met with the head of US Naval Forces Central Command, Vice Admiral Brad Cooper.

He signed a number of memorandums of understanding later Monday, then hosted an event with businesspeople from both countries.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen visits US Fifth Fleet headquarters in Manama and meets with US Naval Forces Central Command head Vice Admiral Brad Cooper (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

The Israeli diplomat also inaugurated Israel’s new embassy in Manama earlier in the day, as it moved to a permanent location after operating out of a temporary home that then-foreign minister Yair Lapid opened at an official ceremony two years ago.

Cohen arrived Sunday evening and was greeted at the airport by Al Zayani, before heading to his hotel to meet with Israeli business executives interested in doing business in Bahrain.

Israeli officials are eager to enhance trade relations with Bahrain, which total around only $50 million annually. Israel’s bilateral trade relationship with the United Arab Emirates, in comparison, is expected to reach $3 billion this year.

Cohen is scheduled to arrive back in Israel on Tuesday evening.

Cohen’s visit comes weeks after Manama postponed his arrival in the wake of a visit by far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, a major flashpoint in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Cohen is one of the first senior Israeli officials to openly visit Israel’s Abraham Accords partners since the Netanyahu government came to power late last year. In August, Energy Minister Israel Katz was in Abu Dhabi to meet UAE Minister of Technology and Industry Sultan Al-Jaber and Jordan’s ministers of environment, water and energy.

Top Arab officials have also stayed away from Israel over the same period.

Though it has not stood out in the stridency of its criticism, Bahrain has joined other Arab countries in condemning Israel over statements by hardline ministers.

However, there have recently been signs of warming, beyond Cohen’s visit. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is slated to fly to Dubai in late November for the COP28 climate summit, after an earlier planned trip to the UAE was canceled over a Ben Gvir visit to the Temple Mount.

Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Abdul Lateef Rashid Al Zayani, speaks to journalists in Manama on December 4, 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

The prime minister was also invited to Morocco by King Mohammed VI in July after Israel announced it would recognize Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara.

Cohen’s visit to Bahrain comes a week after a debacle with another potential Arab partner. After revealing that he had met with Libya’s Foreign Minister Najla Manjoush the previous week, Cohen found himself at the center of a firestorm for making the meeting public. Mangoush lost her job and fled to Turkey, as Cohen was roundly criticized for angering Arab allies and the US.

Cohen blamed “political opponents” for the reaction.

The Libya episode also revealed strains between Netanyahu and his foreign minister. Netanyahu released a statement that henceforth any sensitive meeting conducted by a cabinet minister, and any publication of news of such a meeting, must first be cleared with him — a clear public rebuke of Cohen.

File: Najla Mangoush, Libya’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, attends a signing ceremony in Doha on August 8, 2022. (Mustafa ABUMUNES / AFP)

Israel and Bahrain established full diplomatic relations in September 2020 as part of the US-brokered Abraham Accords, a series of diplomatic deals between the Jewish state and four Arab countries.

In Bahrain, as in UAE and Morocco, public support for the Abraham Accords is declining. Washington Institute polling published in July showed 45% of Bahrainis holding very or somewhat positive views of the agreements in November 2020. That support had steadily eroded to a paltry 20% by March of this year.

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