Israel, Bahrain could announce normalized ties by next year — report

Mosques said ordered to stop anti-Israel sermons, as Manama appears increasingly drawn to Israel by shared antipathy toward Iran

Israel is on the path to normalize diplomatic ties with the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain as the two countries draw closer over their shared hostility to Iran, with an announcement even possible in the relatively near future, Bahraini and Western officials were quoted saying on Saturday.

While there have been a number of recent signs that Bahrain is dropping its traditional hostility to the Jewish state, such as the visit in May of officials from the Israeli Football Association to a FIFA congress there, the officials told the Middle East Eye that an official announcement of the establishment of relations could happen as soon as next year.

While a normalization of ties would likely not extend to the opening of diplomatic missions, the officials said the two countries are already working to set up exchange visits of businessman and religious figures, and even of government ministers.

“I do not think we will witness the opening of an Israeli embassy here, but probably we will have official visits from ministers of trade and economic affairs,” an unnamed Western official told Middle East Eye.

President of the Israeli Football Association Ofer Eini and ISA CEO Rotem Kamer (L) attend the 67th FIFA Congress in the Bahraini capital Manama on May 11, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

The official said that while there was likely to be grumbling from some Bahrainis over the move, with previous steps such as the visit by Israeli soccer officials leading to criticism on social media, the country’s leaders would say it is necessary to counter Iran.

“I would not say this year, maybe the year after, they will tell the populace that it is important to confront Iran, and people with time will accept it,” the official said.

Bahrain, which like Iran has a Shiite majority population, has accused the Islamic Republic of setting up terror cells in its country and fomenting unrest.

In light of their shared hostility towards Iran, a Bahraini official told Middle East Eye that establishing ties with Israel would not be problematic, as unlike Iran, Israel does not pose a threat to the Gulf kingdom.

“Israel does not threaten our security or conspire on us but Iran certainly does,” the official said.

As part of Bahrain’s more conciliatory stance towards Israel, an imam from the country’s second city of Riffa told the news site that the government had ordered mosques to stop giving sermons critical of Israel.

Earlier in the week 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.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, who is the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, California, alongside the Associate Director of the Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, met with the Bahraini king in Manama, the tiny Persian Gulf state’s capital, on February 26, 2017.

Hier told The Times of Israel in a phone interview Monday that he was in Dubai on a mission for his organization when the king personally invited him to visit his palace. While the meeting took place in February, Hier said that he was ready now to discuss its contents after receiving “a clear signal” from the king that the royal meant business. In this case, the signal was that Bahraini Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa attended a large event for the Weisenthal Center last week, and also visited the unabashedly pro-Israeli Museum of Tolerance, also located in Los Angeles.

“The king made a clear statement: ‘It’s illogical for the Arab world to boycott Israel. We must find a better way,” he said.

Asked whether he was sure the king was ready to allow Bahrainis to visit the Jewish state, Hier responded, “absolutely and unequivocally.”

Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center meet with the King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in Bahrain on February 23, 2017. (Courtesy)

Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Sunday seemingly backed the statements by Hier, writing on its Arabic Twitter account, “Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa denounced the Arab boycott against Israel and has confirmed that Bahraini citizens are now free to visit #Israel.”

However, the tweet was quickly deleted.

Hier, who has met with other Arab leaders, said the Bahraini king “is far advanced in his thinking from other leaders in the region. There is no comparison. The others are much more cautious. ”

“He sees, in my opinion, that there is no reason for there to be hostilities between Israel and his kingdom,” he said.

Hier added that the king “made it clear” that Bahrain and Israel could be obvious allies in their shared desire to stem Iranian influence in the region.

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.

In this Sept. 8, 2015 file photo, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, waves to reporters after a meeting with then French president Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)

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.” 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 said in the cable.

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.

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.

“We are entitled, and look forward, to the day when we see an independent state, living in peace and security, side by side with the State of Israel,” a statement from Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa read at the time.

In 2010, an Israeli hospital provided life-saving treatment to a Bahraini princess.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said recently that Israel is enjoying its “best-ever” relations with the Arab world.

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