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As Bahrain FM visits Israel, countries agree to open embassies by year’s end

Gulf kingdom’s Foreign Minister Al-Zayani compares his ‘historic’ one-day trip to Jerusalem with Anwar Sadat’s breakthrough visit to Israel in 1977

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

FM Ashkenazi, right, welcomes Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 18, 2020 (Miri Shimonovich/MFA)
FM Ashkenazi, right, welcomes Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 18, 2020 (Miri Shimonovich/MFA)

Bahrain has okayed Israel’s request to establish an embassy in Manama and is in turn seeking authorization to open an embassy in Israel, the Gulf country’s foreign minister said Wednesday, during a short visit to the Jewish state.

The process should be completed by the end of the year, his Israeli counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi, said at a joint press appearance at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.

“I was pleased to convey to Minister Ashkenazi the Kingdom of Bahrain’s formal request to open an embassy in Israel, and to inform him that Israel’s reciprocal request for an embassy in Manama has been approved,” Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani said. “This is a process which I hope can now move forward relatively quickly.”

He is the first-ever Bahraini minister to visit Israel. Ashkenazi is set to make a reciprocal visit early next month.

Ashkenazi said he and his guest had agreed to open embassies in both countries as soon as possible. “I hope that by the end of the year we will be able to hold ceremonies to mark their openings,” he said, adding that he plans to visit Manama in December to personally open the mission.

He also announced that Bahraini citizens will be able to apply online for visas to Israel starting December 1.

“We will soon start direct flights between our countries allowing our citizens to visit and learn more about our wonderful countries,” he added. “Israeli and Bahraini businessmen and investors will sit together and find ways to cooperate and build partnerships that will bring prosperity to our countries.”

Ashkenazi also welcomed the Palestinian Authority’s decision, announced Tuesday, to resume cooperation with Israel. “Our door is open to renew negotiations and I urge the Palestinians to step through this door with no preconditions,” he said.

It was the two foreign ministers’ first face-to-face meeting, but Ashkenazi said they have become “close friends” since their first conversation several months ago.

“But we are more than friends. We are also partners that share a vision, a goal and a commitment,” he added. “We have a vision of prosperity, peace and security for our region. We are united by the goal of delivering the fruits of peace to our people.”

Al-Zayani echoed those sentiments, and even compared his “historic” one-day trip to Israel with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s November 1977 visit to Jerusalem.

“You know, 43 years ago, almost to the day 43 years ago, on November 19, 1977, the late president Sadat of Egypt first visited Israeli, planting the seeds of regional peace, which we are nurturing further today. So I think it is fitting that I am making this visit so near that anniversary, because I arrive here from a country that is convinced of the importance of peace.”

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat lands in Israel on November 19, 1977 (Moshe Milner/GPO archive)

The Bahraini top diplomat further said that he was encouraged by the “open and constructive atmosphere” in which his talks with Israeli officials have taken place. “There is a clear keenness on both sides to make this cooperation work and to demonstrate this can have clear positive benefits for our countries and the region.”

Al Zayani landed in Tel Aviv earlier on Wednesday on the first-ever nonstop passenger flight from Bahrain to Israel. He was joined on the Gulf Air plane by a senior US delegation, headed by the outgoing administration’s top peace negotiator, Avi Berkowitz.

Al-Zayani’s delegation — which includes various senior officials, including a deputy foreign minister, the head of Bahrain’s civil aviation and journalists — was greeted at the airport by Ashkenazi.

To some extent, al-Zayani has been the public face of Bahrain’s normalization process with Israel. He, like his counterpart from the United Arab Emirates, signed the so-called Abraham Accords and a “Declaration of Peace” with Israel at a September 15 ceremony at the White House.

On October 25, he signed eight bilateral agreements, including a “Joint Communiqué on the establishment of diplomatic, peaceful, and friendly relations” with Israel during a ceremony in Manama.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat, Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz and other Bahraini and Israeli officials participate in the signing ceremony of a peace agreement between Israel and Bahrain, in Manama on October 18, 2020. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)

Later on Wednesday, President Reuven Rivlin hosted the Bahraini top diplomat at his Jerusalem residence, where Al-Zayani signed the visitors’ book and delivered remarks to the press.

“I’m very, very excited that our two nations have shown the world that there is also a time for peace,” Rivlin said. “This is a new era of friendship, of cooperation, of partnership and I welcome you to Jerusalem in this spirit, as a friend.”

The president said the normalization agreements with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates “showed that peace is possible” and issued a direct appeal to the Palestinian Authority.

President Reuven Rivlin (R) and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on November 18, 2020. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

“President Abbas, we want to live in peace. We are one family. We are all sons of Abraham,” Rivlin said.

He also invited Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to visit Israel.

Al-Zayani said Bahrain and Israel must work to show the benefits of peace to other countries.

“The peoples of the Middle East deserve no less than achieving peace for all and achieving prosperity,” he said.

Al-Zayani was later set to head to the Prime Minister’s Office for a series of meetings, including a one-on-one meeting with Netanyahu and a tripartite meeting with Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Ashkenazi will also attend the latter meeting.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) speaks during a joint press conference with the Slovenian prime minister (unseen) after their meeting in Bled, in the foothills of the Julian Alps, August 13, 2020. (Jure Makovec/AFP)

Pompeo is currently on a seven-nation tour that includes stops in France, Turkey, Georgia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

Israeli and Bahrain will sign several bilateral agreements.

Ashkenazi and Berkowitz, the US administration’s point man for the Israel-Arab normalization, will join some of the meetings. Berkowitz’s delegation includes a handful of US senior National Security Council officials.

After another meeting with Ashkenazi at around 8 p.m., al-Zayani is scheduled to head back to Manama at around 10:30 p.m., after only 12 hours on the ground.

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