Peace deal brings once secret Israel-Bahrain contacts into the open
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Peace deal brings once secret Israel-Bahrain contacts into the open

The two countries began establishing discreet ties in the 1990s, relations accelerated last year; Saudi approval was likely needed for full accord

Combination image shows (L) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairing the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020, and (R) King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, speaking with another delegate during the 40th Gulf Cooperation Council summit held at the Saudi capital Riyadh on December 10, 2019. (Ronen Zvulun and Fayez Nureldine/Various Sources/AFP)
Combination image shows (L) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairing the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020, and (R) King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, speaking with another delegate during the 40th Gulf Cooperation Council summit held at the Saudi capital Riyadh on December 10, 2019. (Ronen Zvulun and Fayez Nureldine/Various Sources/AFP)

MANAMA, Bahrain — Bahrain’s contacts with Israel, thought to have started discreetly in the 1990s, accelerated in recent years towards the historic agreement to establish diplomatic relations announced on Friday.

Bahrain is the second Gulf state to announce a normalization deal in the space of a month, following in the footsteps of its neighbor the United Arab Emirates. The two agreements have been slammed as a “betrayal” by Palestinians who argue the Arabs should not establish relations with Israel until the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Like most other Gulf countries, Bahrain shares with Israel a common enemy in Iran, which Manama accuses of instigating protests by the nation’s Shiite Muslim community against the ruling Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty.

But it is not likely to have acted without a nod from Saudi Arabia, its close ally just across a narrow causeway from the island state.

First meetings

Following years of low-key contact, Bahrain’s crown prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa kicked off official diplomacy with talks with Israeli officials during World Economic Forum summits in 2000 and 2003.

The two nations’ foreign ministers met at the United Nations in 2007 and two years later, Israel’s then-president Shimon Peres and Bahrain’s king reportedly met in New York on the sidelines of a UN conference.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres shakes hands with Bahrain’s Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa at the Summit of Peacemakers conference in Sharm al-Sheikj, Egypt, in March 1996. (Government Press Office)

An official Bahraini delegation traveled to Israel the same year on an unprecedented trip to recover a group of nationals held by the Jewish state.

The Bahrainis in custody were among pro-Palestinian activists on a ship seized by the Israeli navy as it headed for the Gaza Strip in defiance of Israel’s blockade.

Bahrain’s parliament, ignoring government objections, passed a bill in October 2009 to outlaw any contact with Israel on pain of prison. The bill needed clearance by the consultative council, a body appointed by the king, which rejected it.

‘Defending’ Israel

The 2011 Arab Spring movement slowed down normalization efforts while the monarchy faced a wave of protests led by Shiite Muslims demanding reforms.

But in September 2016, Bahrain’s then foreign minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa paid tribute to Shimon Peres when the former leader passed away, in a surprise statement that drew strong Arab criticism on social media.

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)

In 2017, the rapprochement went public when an Israeli delegation was allowed to take part in the FIFA Congress taking place in Manama. Sports diplomacy featured again when an Israeli driver was permitted to participate in a major car race.

Also that year, an interfaith group from Bahrain said it had sent a delegation to Israel to promote “tolerance and coexistence” at a time of Arab anger the Trump administration’s decsion to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its Embassy there.

And in May 2018, the foreign minister backed Israel’s right to “defend itself” after the Israeli military said it struck dozens of Iranian military targets in Syria, marking a rare, if not unprecedented public stance by an Arab government.

Accelerating efforts

In 2019, the countries drew noticeably closer to each other.

In June, a US-organized economic workshop in Bahrain failed to deliver tangible results over the long-awaited Middle East peace plan, but it opened the door for closer Israel-Gulf ties.

In an unprecedented interview of a senior Gulf official by the Times of Israel, Bahrain’s foreign minister said on the sidelines of the two-day workshop that Israel is part of the region’s heritage.

A month later, Israel’s then foreign minister Israel Katz announced that he had met his Bahraini counterpart during a visit to Washington.

Then Foreign Minister Israel Katz and his Bahraini counterpart Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa (R) pose for a photograph at the State Department in Washington on July 17, 2019. (Courtesy)

In October, representatives from more than 60 countries, including Israel, met in Bahrain to discuss maritime security following attacks on tankers in the Gulf and Saudi oil installations. Iran, which was accused of the strikes, was not present.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani (R) hosts US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Manama on August 25, 2020. (Twitter)

Bahrain welcomed the surprise UAE deal with Israel on August 13, calling it a “historic” step.

However, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa said he told visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that his country remained committed to the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Palestinian territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War.

Nevertheless, Manama later agreed to allow UAE flights to and from Israel to overfly the kingdom, a day after a similar decision was announced by Saudi Arabia.

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