Netanyahu won’t visit Bahrain next week, reportedly at kingdom’s request

After PM accepts invitation to visit Gulf state, Manama asks for delay until later in December so he can package it with UAE visit; FM Ashkenazi’s trip to Manama also postponed

(L to R) US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, all mask-clad due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, arrive for a press conference after their trilateral meeting in Jerusalem on November 18, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / POOL / AFP)
(L to R) US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, all mask-clad due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, arrive for a press conference after their trilateral meeting in Jerusalem on November 18, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / POOL / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has postponed a planned groundbreaking trip to Bahrain at the Gulf kingdom’s request, according to Hebrew media reports on Wednesday.

The trip, which would be the first-ever officially announced visit to a Gulf Arab country by an Israeli prime minister, will reportedly take place in late December instead of next week.

Netanyahu said Tuesday morning that he had spoken on the phone with Bahrain’s crown prince and prime minister, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who invited him to visit the Gulf nation, months after the countries agreed to normalize ties.

Netanyahu said he would soon embark on the trip, and his office began planning a visit for next week.

However, before the trip was finalized, Bahrain asked Netanyahu to delay the visit until later next month and make it part of a broader Gulf tour that includes the United Arab Emirates, Israeli officials told the Walla news site on Wednesday evening.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, left, welcomes Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani to Israel, November 18, 2020 (Miri Shimonovich/MFA)

The Israeli leader has reportedly also contacted Abu Dhabi about a state visit. But the UAE had told Netanyahu that its national day, which falls on December 2, would make a visit next week inconvenient, prompting the Israeli leader to press ahead with plans to only visit Bahrain, the officials said.

A new date has yet to be set, but the tour will likely see Netanyahu visit both Gulf states which established diplomatic ties with Israel in September.

There was no comment on the report from either country’s foreign ministry. However, Jerusalem did confirm that Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi’s planned trip to Bahrain on December 3 had been delayed.

A spokesperson for Ashkenazi said that Bahrain diplomatic protocol maintains that a head of state or government invited by the crown prince must visit before other cabinet members may do so.

Ashkenazi had been slated to participate in the IISS Manama Dialogue security conference, according to the ministry, and would have been the highest-ranking Israeli to visit the tiny island nation.

The developments followed the first-ever visit by a Bahraini foreign minister to the Jewish state last week.

Bahrain’s Crown prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa smiles while seeing off Britain’s Prince Charles and wife Camilla in Manama, Bahrain, November 11, 2016. (AP/Jon Gambrell)

The state Bahrain news agency said the phone call between Netanyahu and Bahrain’s crown prince was held Monday night. It said they discussed the promotion of relations between the two countries and “ways to establish collaboration across various sectors to further enhance peace and stability in the region.”

It has not confirmed the invitation to Netanyahu or any plans for him to visit.

In his own statement, Netanyahu said he had a “very friendly” conversation with the crown prince, adding that it was the second time they had spoken.

“We are both very excited by the fact that we can bring the fruits of peace to our nations and countries in a very short time,” Netanyahu said. “That’s why he invited me to come in the near future for an official visit to Bahrain. I will do that, on your behalf, with pleasure.”

Netanyahu is thought to have visited various Gulf capitals in secret as the countries maintained an under-the-radar relationship only brought into the open amid a flurry of diplomatic activity over the last several months. In 2018, he visited Muscat, but only confirmed the visit after the fact.

Earlier this week, Israeli officials told local media that Netanyahu made a secret trip to Saudi tech hub Neom for clandestine talks with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In the past, reports of similar trips had been gagged by Israel’s military censor.

Israel and Bahrain established diplomatic ties in September, and have since reached an agreement to open reciprocal embassies.

Visiting Israel last week, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani called for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, indicating that the region would only know true peace with the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Delivering a statement alongside Netanyahu and Pompeo, al-Zayani said he hoped the emerging cooperation between Israel and Bahrain would “pave the way for a dawn of peace for the entire Middle East.”

From left to right: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

In the past two months, Jerusalem and Manama have made “considerable progress” on the path to a more stable region based on peace, dialogue and understanding, Bahrain’s top diplomat said.

In their respective speeches, Netanyahu and Pompeo hailed Israel’s recent normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — known as the Abraham Accords — and Sudan, but did not explicitly refer to the Palestinians.

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