Historic first Israeli flight to Gulf kingdom

Israeli delegation heads to Bahrain to establish formal diplomatic relations

‘For Bahrain, this is a historic day,’ Israeli official says ahead of departure of special El Al Flight 973; Jerusalem and Manama won’t sign bilateral treaty but a Joint Communiqué

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US officials make statements at Ben Gurion Airport ahead of the first direct Israel-Bahrain passenger flight. October 18, 2020 (Haim Tzach/GPO)
US officials make statements at Ben Gurion Airport ahead of the first direct Israel-Bahrain passenger flight. October 18, 2020 (Haim Tzach/GPO)

A joint US-Israel delegation headed to Bahrain Sunday morning to sign a series of bilateral agreements between Jerusalem and Manama, including a so-called Joint Communiqué that will formally establish diplomatic relations between the two countries.

El Al Flight 973 — a nod to Bahrain’s country code — departed from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport to Manama in the first-ever nonstop passenger flight from Israel to the Gulf kingdom.

On Sunday evening, the US delegation — headed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the White House’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Avi Berkowitz — will continue to the United Arab Emirates for meetings.

But, contrary to recent reports, the Israeli delegation — headed by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and Foreign Ministry director-general Alon Ushpiz — will not join their American colleagues in Abu Dhabi. Rather, they are set to return to Israel on Sunday evening.

Prime Minister’s Office Acting Director-General Ronen Peretz is also joining the trip, as are the directors general of a handful of Israeli ministries.

Foreign Affairs Minister of Bahrain Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, and US President Donald Trump participate in the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords on the South Lawn of the White House on September 15, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

Minutes before take-off, Ben-Shabbat said he was moved and proud to head the Israeli delegation to Manama, which aims to “translate into action programs and concrete agreements” in the Declaration of Peace that Israel and Bahrain signed in Washington on September 15. He issued a short prayer about the desire for peace.

“We’re here in the land of Abraham to take the next step on the Abraham Accords,” US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said, noting that the biblical patriarch gave birth to many nations, including “the Jewish nation and the Arab nation.

“Those nations were rivals but as we all know from the Book of Genesis, they reconciled some 3,500 years ago. Today, we’re bringing the Bible back to life. The children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael are reconciling once again, in this holy land and in Bahrain and in the United Arab Emirates as well.”

He added: “It’s another historic day among many historic days that the Trump administration has brought to this region.”

Mnuchin said he was thrilled to represent US President Donald Trump on the “momentous” trip and congratulated the leaders of Israel and Bahrain for their “bold leadership.”

Berkowitz said Israel and Bahrain will be signing “extremely important documents.”

Switching to Hebrew, he added that he was excited to be flying on El Al and was looking forward to returning to Israel on Tuesday with an Emirati delegation.

On Tuesday, a senior UAE delegation, including two top cabinet ministers, is expected to arrive in Israel for bilateral talks geared at implementing normalization agreements with Israel signed in Washington last month.

That delegation will mark the first time UAE ministers visit the Jewish state publicly since the two countries announced the normalization of ties on August 13.

“For the Bahrainis, this is a historic day. They see it as an important event and are very moved [by] it,” a senior Israeli official said Saturday on Sunday’s meeting, in a briefing to diplomatic reporters.

Officials in the tiny Gulf kingdom see the short trip — Israelis will be on the ground for about seven hours — as the Bahraini counterpart to the historic US-Israel delegation to Abu Dhabi on August 31, during which officials laid the groundwork for the UAE-Israel treaty signed two weeks later at the White House.

Bahraini Ambassador to Washington Abdulla Al-Khalifa on Saturday took to Twitter to hail the US-Israel delegation to Manama as “another historic day.”

Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani is set to greet the joint US-Israel delegation at Manama airport at around 2 p.m., where he and the heads of the joint US-Israel delegation are expected to deliver a number of speeches.

From the tarmac, the officials will head to the capital’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, where they will break up into various working groups to discuss the signing of bilateral agreements in a wide number of fields, including the reciprocal opening of embassies, the establishment of visa regimes, cooperation on agriculture and so on.

Though these are bilateral talks between Israel and Bahrain, Jerusalem appreciates the US role in making the rapprochement between the two countries possible, the senior official said.

“For us, the American involvement paved the way to make public the relations with Bahrain that we conducted under the radar for more than 20 years. The potential here is huge, from a diplomatic perspective, but also economically. And they see it exactly the same way.”

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat elbow bumps with an Emirati official ahead of boarding the plane before leaving Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, September 1, 2020. (Nir Elias/Pool/AFP)

Later on Sunday afternoon, Israel and Bahrain will sign several memorandums of understandings, including the “Joint Communiqué on the establishment of diplomatic, peaceful and friendly relations.”

“This text is not a formal treaty in the legal sense, but rather a framework agreement,” according to a senior Israeli official familiar with the details of the matter. “This is the way the Bahrainis go about establishing bilateral ties in recent years. As of Sunday’s signing ceremony, Israel and Bahrain will have established formal diplomatic relations.”

It is currently unclear whether this document will be brought to the Israeli cabinet and/or the Knesset for approval. It appears likely that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit would require the agreement to be okayed by ministers at the very least, as it contains several obligations on Israel’s part.

“The aim of the communiqué is to start implementing the declaration which was signed in Washington, put more meat into it, make it more detailed and define the principles of the relations between the countries,” an official told the Walla news site on Friday.

“It will be the umbrella for all bilateral agreements to be signed in the next several months,” the unnamed official said.

According to the Walla report, the Bahrainis want to move forward more cautiously than the UAE, due to some domestic opposition to the move. Nevertheless, the communique was still considered to be progress and an expansion on the initial declaration signed in Washington.

The flags of the US, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Bahrain are screened on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, on September 15, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In addition to the already agreed-upon establishment of full diplomatic relations and the opening of embassies, the communiqué will see both sides commit to not engage in any hostile actions against one another and act to prevent such actions on their territories by third parties.

It will also highlight the areas of intended cooperation: investment, civil aviation, tourism, trade, science and technology, the environment, communications, health, agriculture, water, energy and legal affairs.

Jerusalem and Manama have approved a “series of steps initiating this new chapter in their relations,” including the desire to reach bilateral agreements in various fields and the reciprocal opening of embassies, according to the report.

A handful of Israeli reporters joined the trip to Manama. While the officials will hammer out the last details of the bilateral agreements behind closed doors, the press will tour the city’s historic synagogue and meet with Khalid bin Khalifa Al-Khalifa, who heads the King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence, a think tank promoting pluralism and religious tolerance.

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