MANAMA, Bahrain — The signing of a security memorandum of understanding between Israel and Bahrain on Thursday comes amid growing threats from Iran against the two countries and as the United States shifts its focus away from the region and toward the brewing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Though the United States remains an active player in the Middle East — as evidenced by its successful operation against Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in northern Syria overnight Wednesday — countries in the region understand that Washington, for the time being, has its interests elsewhere and must work together more against Tehran.
“We must strengthen the ‘moderate camp,’ and there is such a thing,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Thursday after signing the MOU, referring to Western-aligned Arab countries. “Our formal relations allow us to come in and work together against shared threats. We are only in our first year of the Abraham Accords — in the coming decade there will be significant developments.”
Israeli officials believe that formal ties with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in the region are at this point a matter of time, as those countries see the benefits of cooperation with Jerusalem that are now being enjoyed by the others that have normalized ties with Israel: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt and Jordan.
Gantz’s trip was a clear signal to Iran of this growing alliance against it, with the defense minister’s air force plane flying through Saudi Arabian airspace in order to reach Manama, just 200 kilometers (120 miles) from Iran’s coast.
“This is the first time that a defense minister is coming for an official visit openly, and the truth is that they are the ones doing this in a significant, high-profile way. We signed a security cooperation agreement, which is another milestone in the hugely important process of the Abraham Accords, which we have been ushering through for more than a year,” Gantz said, speaking to reporters toward the end of his visit.
The message to Iran came as talks in Vienna between the world powers and Tehran about the Iranian nuclear program appeared to be reaching some kind of breaking point, with the US reportedly worrying that a return to the existing 2015 nuclear deal would not sufficiently curtail the amount of time Iran would need to develop a nuclear weapon.
During his trip, in addition to signing the memorandum of understanding to formalize defense ties, Gantz met with top Bahraini officials, most notably King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Crown Prince and Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and Defense Minister Abdullah Bin Hassan Al Nuaimi.
“I want to thank the king for the hospitality and the courageous decision to hold the visit publicly. This decision to go openly is a significant decision. It is a step that has been ripening for a long time. There have been relationships between the [two countries’] defense establishments for many years, and it is a historic moment to make them official, formal and public,” Gantz said.
Though it is somewhat less influential than other countries in the Gulf, Bahrain is nevertheless considered a significant player in the region, especially given its position directly between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with which it has deep political and cultural ties. It has also maintained a deep relationship with the US military, which has based its navy’s 5th Fleet in the island nation for the past three decades.
“Bahrain stands on its own as a country that we want and need to develop a relationship with, in all aspects, civilian and military. Formalizing our cooperation allows us to create forums and workgroups that will provide an answer for the operational needs of the two countries. Bahrain isn’t the ‘annex’ of any country — the connection with it is important and significant,” Gantz said.
Like Israel, Bahrain sees Iran as a key enemy, with the Islamic Republic having backed a number of revolutionary groups in the country over the years.
Bahrain has so far been largely spared direct attacks from Iranian proxies, unlike its neighbor the United Arab Emirates, which has repeatedly been targeted by the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen, including during Gantz’s visit to the Gulf.
The UAE and Bahrain have each expressed interest in purchasing air defense systems from Israel in light of these attacks — a process made easier for the latter with the MOU signed on Thursday, which streamlines arms sales — and Jerusalem is seriously considering these requests.
“From now on there will be increased talks and presence in terms of cooperation and defense industries here, and we will find solutions and assist, which will be appropriate for the Bahrainis’ security needs. This is precisely the point of this agreement — that we can sit together, create workgroups and find concrete solutions,” Gantz told reporters.
In his briefing to journalists, the defense minister also discussed the US’s operation against the Islamic State chief, saying it sent a message not only to the terror group but to the world about America’s willingness and ability to conduct bold operations.
“It broadcasts an important message to the Middle East. The message is that there is the operational and strategic determination of the utmost significance. As a rule, the American modus operandi is to do big operations, and they have the capability,” Gantz said.
Gantz’s comments on America’s willingness to act carried clear overtones regarding Iran and the prospects of an Israeli, or Israeli-American, strike on its nuclear program, should the talks in Vienna truly fail and Tehran begin to construct a nuclear device, something Israel has repeatedly said it would not accept.
“I think it is very important, it is an important message to the world — that when America wants to do something, it can,” he said.
Asked if the US had told Israel about its plans to go after al-Qurayshi in advance or if Israel was involved in the operation, Gantz refused to comment.
“I won’t go into details about conversations with the Americans. At the end of the day, this was an American operation, an independent and important one, including actions on the ground,” he said.
According to President Joe Biden, US special forces raided the compound where al-Qurayshi was hiding out in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. As the US troops approached, al-Qurayshi detonated a bomb that killed himself and members of his family, including women and children.
The operation came as IS has been trying for a resurgence, with a series of attacks in the region, including an assault late last month to seize a prison in northeast Syria holding at least 3,000 IS detainees, its boldest operation in years.
Gantz also referred to comments he made on Wednesday at a conference hosted by the Institute for National Security Studies, regarding Israeli offers of assistance to Lebanon, amid the country’s ongoing, unprecedented financial crisis.
“I don’t believe that the Lebanese people are our enemy. And if Israel can do something positive, it should. It doesn’t hurt the Lebanese and it doesn’t hurt the world. It would be good for Lebanon to be in a reasonable financial situation in order to preserve stability,” he said.