A delegation of religious figures from the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain arrived in Israel this week “in order to send a message of peace,” in an extremely rare instance of representatives from an Arab country without diplomatic relations visiting the Jewish state.
The trip seemed to signal a further warming of ties between Israel and Bahrain, which a report earlier this year said are on a path to normalizing diplomatic relations.
The delegation, which is made up of 24 members of the “This is Bahrain” group — which on its website heralds a commitment to a vision of “religious freedom and peaceful co-existence where we all live together in harmony in the spirit of mutual respect and love” — is in Israel for a four-day visit meant to send a message of religious tolerance and coexistence.
“The king sent us with a message of peace to the whole world,” a Shiite cleric on the trip told Hadashot TV news, which aired a report on Saturday about the group.
The cleric said that Shiites, who make up a majority of the Sunni ruled country, do not harbor ill will towards members of any other faiths.
“The Shiites in Bahrain and outside don’t feel hatred, they don’t carry a message of loathing or hate towards any religion or religious stream whatsoever,” he said.
Bahrain faced protests from its Shiite community following the outbreak of the Arab Spring across the region in 2011. With the help of Saudi Arabia, which sent troops across the causeway separating the two countries, Bahrain put down the demonstrations, which it accused Shiite majority Iran of helping orchestrate.
Like Israel, Bahrain has extremely fraught relations with Iran, and the September report, from the Middle East Eye website, quoted an unnamed Bahraini official as saying the establishment of ties between Jerusalem and Manama could help counter Iran.
That report came days after a prominent rabbi who met with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa told The Times of Israel that the king said he opposes the Arab states’ boycott of Israel and intends to allow citizens from his kingdom to visit the Jewish state freely.
Bahrain, a group of islands in the Persian gulf with a population of 1.4 million, has no formal diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. However, a trickle of Israeli tourists and businessmen have been known to visit the country in recent years.
Other WikiLeaks documents show that senior officials from both countries have spoken in recent years, including a 2007 meeting between then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni and Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa in New York. In 2009, Al Khalifa also signaled that he was willing to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try to advance the peace process, but ultimately decided not to go ahead with the plan.
While Jerusalem and Manama have never maintained diplomatic relations, in 2005, the king boasted to an American official that his state has contacts with Israel “at the intelligence/security level (i.e., with Mossad),” according to a secret US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks. The king also indicated willingness “to move forward in other areas, although it will be difficult for Bahrain to be the first.”
In 2009, Bahrain’s crown prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa penned an op-ed for the Washington Post, in which he urged Arab countries to communicate more with Israel for the sake of the peace process.
In 2016, when former president Shimon Peres died, Bahrain was the only Gulf country to publicly mourn his passing.