Gulf states ready for peace, says well-connected US rabbi

Marc Schneier, who has good ties with Bahraini royal family, urges Netanyahu to take a page out of the Sadat playbook and make the first public overture

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Rabbi Marc Schneier with King Hamad at the Bahraini Crown Palace, December 2011. (photo Walter Ruby/Foundation for Ethnic Understanding)
Rabbi Marc Schneier with King Hamad at the Bahraini Crown Palace, December 2011. (photo Walter Ruby/Foundation for Ethnic Understanding)

Israel should publicly commend Bahrain for labeling Hezbollah a terrorist organization and it should try to build strategic alliances with all Gulf states based on a common opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a prominent American rabbi with ties to the Bahraini royal family said.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, an American congregational leader who recently met with the Bahraini king and the crown prince, urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit an Arab country and seize Israel and Sunni Muslims’ common distrust of Tehran as a path toward warming relations with parts of the Arab world.

However, an expert on the politics of the gulf states said that while Bahrain’s move to blacklist Hezbollah did present “an opening,” a real improvement of bilateral ties remains elusive and would likely stay under the radar.

“We’re so myopic, we’re so focused on Europe, and here you have a very significant development that took place in Bahrain,” Schneier told The Times of Israel, referring to the tiny Gulf state’s recent decision to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization. “I am calling for a conversation to take place, a conversation that needs to begin within Israel about looking east, not only looking west.”

Schneier bemoaned the fact that the Bahraini parliament’s March 26 decision to outlaw the Lebanese-Shiite group received little press coverage in Israel, and that Jerusalem didn’t comment at all.

“No one’s even discussing this,” he lamented. “After Bahrain passed this legislation, I was simply amazed how little attention this was given in Israel. It is a landmark event, particularly because it’s an Arab country that has called on other Arab countries to follow suit.”

“Israel needs to remember it lives in the Middle East and not in the Middle West,” Schneier added. “There is an opportunity to begin to create some kind of strategic alliance with the gulf states, which have been very expressive about their concerns about Iran and its satellite organizations like Hezbollah.”

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem declined to comment on Schneier’s remarks, but a diplomatic official told The Times of Israel that “If the Bahrainis had wanted Israel to say something, they could have sent us a message through diplomatic channels. Since they didn’t, we didn’t.”

The Bahraini Foreign Ministry did not respond to a Times of Israel query on this matter.

Schneier, perhaps best known for being the founder of The Hampton Synagogue, which is frequented by affluent and prominent US Jews, is the co-founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.

In the framework of his interfaith work, he developed a relationship with Bahrain’s ambassador to the US, Houda Nonoo, the first Jew to represent an Arab country in Washington. In December 2011, Schneier was received by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa at the royal palace in Manama. The king told him that Bahrain and Israel have a common enemy in Iran. He has been in “close contact with the royal family ever since,” Schneier said.

Rabbi Marc Schneier with Crown Prince of Bahrain Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who is also deputy supreme commander and first deputy prime minister (photo credit:  courtesy Foundation for Ethnic Understanding)
Rabbi Marc Schneier with Crown Prince of Bahrain Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who is also deputy supreme commander and first deputy prime minister (photo credit: courtesy Foundation for Ethnic Understanding)

In March, Schneier returned to Manama to meet with the heir apparent, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who is also the deputy supreme commander of the Bahraini army and first deputy prime minister. He “validated and reconfirmed” his father’s statements about Israel and Iran, Schneier said.

Israel and Bahrain do not maintain diplomatic relations, but in 2005 King Hamad told the US ambassador that his state has contacts with Israel “at the intelligence/security level (i.e., with Mossad),” according to a secret US diplomatic cable published two years ago by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. He 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 told the ambassador.

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

Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agreed that the gulf states and Israel have a common foe in Iran. “The designation of Hezbollah is certainly an opening; it shows that they’re concerned about this non-state actor that Israel obviously regards as a dire threat as well,” he said.

However, a real rapprochement between Manama and Jerusalem remains unlikely, asserted Wehrey, who focuses on political reform and security issues in the Arab Gulf states and US policy in the Middle East. “On a strategic level, yes, there is a shared threat, but that doesn’t negate the very issue they’re facing from domestic parties and their populations. Many Bahrainis and citizens of other gulf states feel strongly about the Palestinian cause and the governments will therefore have to tread very carefully in how it approaches relations to Israel,” he said. “If there are ties, they would be under the table and hidden from the public view.”

According to the website of the kingdom’s foreign ministry, Bahrain supports the creation of a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 lines and the “right of return of Palestinian refugees.” Manama also holds Jerusalem responsible “for the unfortunate, deteriorating, and painful situation in the Palestinian lands as a result of Israel’s aggressive practices including: assassinations; settlement-building; and the erection of the Separation Wall; as well as attacking holy places, and imposing economic blockades,” the site states.

It is not even clear why Israel would want to develop overt ties with Bahrain, added Wehrey, noting that the autocratic regime is currently facing enormous criticism for its poor human rights record and the way it suppresses public unrest. A strong affiliation with such a state — which is not a regional powerhouse like, for instance, Saudi Arabia — “might actually damage Israel’s position,” he said.

But Schneier, speaking to The Times of Israel from his home in New York, believes that if Jerusalem made a genuine effort to negotiate a peace treaty with the Palestinians, then Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Oman would be willing to recognize Israel and normalize relations. “All gulf states are ready,” he said. “We now have the opportunity, or the tension, to move that thing along because of Iran.”

The rabbi called on Netanyahu to make the first step by approaching the Arab states. “I believe the prime minister should take a page out of Sadat’s playbook and either show up at one of the capitals of the gulf states or appear before the Arab League,” he said, referring to Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s 1977 visit to Israel, which laid the foundation for a peace agreement between the two countries signed two years later.

“There is a precedent for it,” Schneier said. “As long as Israel continues to do its share at trying to arrive at a resolution with the Palestinian people, then I believe there is an opportunity here.”

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