Economy minister says he’s received invite to Bahrain conference
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Economy minister says he’s received invite to Bahrain conference

Eli Cohen does not confirm whether he plans to attend; invitation reportedly relayed via Swiss officials

Economy minister Eli Cohen arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 17, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Economy minister Eli Cohen arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 17, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Economy Minister Eli Cohen said Monday he had been invited to attend a conference in Bahrain next year, a day after reports emerged that Israel was working to normalize ties with Manama.

The announcement came as Jerusalem ramps up its drive to forge more open relations with the Arab world, amid shifting alliances in the Middle East driven by shared concerns over Iran.

“I myself received a personal invitation to Bahrain,” Cohen told Army Radio, according to the Reuters news agency, before adding that the conference was “in the realm of technology and high-tech, in which the State of Israel is certainly a leader.” Cohen did not confirm whether he plans to attend.

Reuters reported that an Israeli official said Cohen was invited to the Startup Nations Ministerial conference on April 15.

The official, who requested anonymity, said the invitation had originated from the Manama government and was relayed via Swiss officials.

In a statement to Reuters, Switzerland’s ambassador to Israel, Jean-Daniel Ruch, said his embassy had no knowledge of the invitation.

The announcement came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted he would soon travel to unspecified Arab states, during a press conference with visiting Chadian leader Idriss Déby Sunday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Chadian President Idriss Deby as they deliver joint statements in Jerusalem, November 25, 2018. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AFP)

The revelation that Israel is actively working to forge closer ties with Bahrain comes as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is visiting the island kingdom. The prince, who is attempting to rehabilitate his image in the West after the killing of writer Jamal Khashoggi, is seen as a key part of a US-backed drive for Gulf states to open their doors to Israel amid shared concern over Iran’s expansion in the region.

In May, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa wrote on Twitter that Israel has the right to defend itself against Iran.

Bahrain Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, during a meeting at the Arab League headquarters in the Egyptian capital Cairo, on November 19, 2017. (AFP Photo/Khaled Desouki)

Oman, which has often played the role of regional mediator, welcomed Netanyahu in a surprise visit last month, an apparent sign of Israeli progress in improving ties with Gulf countries.

At a security conference in Bahrain following the visit, Oman’s foreign minister also offered rare words of support for the Jewish state.

“Israel is a state present in the region, and we all understand this. The world is also aware of this fact and maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same and also bear the same obligations,” Yussef bin Alawi bin Abdullah said, according to Reuters.

During a press conference with Déby on Sunday, Netanyahu remarked that “there will be more such visits in Arab countries very soon,” without providing details.

The Israeli premier has for years spoken about the warming ties between Israel and the Arab world, citing not only Iran as a common enemy but also many countries’ interest in cooperating with Israel on security and defense matters, as well as Israel’s growing high-tech industry.

Earlier on Sunday, Déby became the first president of Chad to visit Israel and pledged a new era of relations when meeting Netanyahu, 46 years after ties were severed.

In remarks to journalists after a closed-door meeting, Déby spoke of the two countries committing to a new era of cooperation with “the prospect of reestablishing diplomatic relations.”

Déby said he was “proud” that he had accepted Israel’s official invite. “It can be called breaking the ice,” he said. “We came here indeed with the desire to renew diplomatic relations. Your country is an important country. Your country, like Chad, fights against terrorism.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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