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Visiting US fleet in Bahrain, Gantz hails ties while warning of threat from Iran

Key topic for discussion during defense minister’s trip is ensuring safe passageway through Red Sea, a source of concern for Israel in light of recent attacks on vessels

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, along with Israeli Navy chief David Salama, center, speak with the head of the US Navy's 5th Fleet, Admiral Brad Cooper, in front of the USS Cole in Bahrain on February 3, 2022. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, along with Israeli Navy chief David Salama, center, speak with the head of the US Navy's 5th Fleet, Admiral Brad Cooper, in front of the USS Cole in Bahrain on February 3, 2022. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

MANAMA — Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited the United States Navy’s 5th Fleet base in Bahrain on Thursday, hailing ties between the three countries amid growing threats from Iran.

The defense minister’s trip came against the backdrop of peak tensions in the Gulf, with attacks by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militia against the United Arab Emirates increasing in recent weeks.

“This [cooperation] is a security need of the first order in light of the growing challenges on the maritime front in particular and in the region in general,” Gantz said, speaking in front of the USS Cole, an American warship that the US said it would send to the UAE to help protect it from the ongoing Houthi attacks.

One of the key topics of conversations was ensuring safe passageway through the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, a significant source of concern for Israel in light of recent attacks on Israeli-owned vessels, allegedly by Iran, as part of a “shadow war” being waged between Israel and Iran at sea in the past few years.

“The fact that we are able to land here, in an Israeli Air Force plane, and to visit with our partners, that the head of the Israeli Navy can visit the 5th Fleet, and we can speak openly about meaningful defense issues about the security of the region, is a significant milestone,” Gantz said.

The defense minister was joined on the trip by a number of senior defense officials, including Israeli Navy chief David Salama, who also went on board the USS Cole.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, along with Israeli Navy chief David Salama, center, meet with the head of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, Admiral Brad Cooper, on board the USS Cole in Bahrain on February 3, 2022. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

“This is a historic visit by the Israeli Navy to Bahrain and to the 5th Fleet, which leads the creation of collaborations, which will bring safe passageway and a secure maritime area for the State of Israel and for our partners in the US Central Command,” Salama said.

In his speech, Gantz offered to take part in joint operations to help defend against the threats posed by Iran and its proxies in the region.

“We are willing to help, to take part in joint operational activities, in order to ensure stability and so that our friends can continue to exist and to prosper securely, and we will also be better protected from the different threats facing us,” Gantz said.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, speaks with the head of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, Admiral Brad Cooper, on board the USS Cole in Bahrain on February 3, 2022. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The US Navy’s 5th Fleet represents a major military force in the region with thousands of soldiers based in Bahrain, and thousands more from the rest of the American military based around the region.

“Israel will continue to strengthen our connection to the United States and to countries in the region,” Gantz said.

The US chargé d’affaires in Bahrain, Maggie Nardi, also lauded the ties between the three countries and reflected on the history of the USS Cole, which was attacked by al-Qaeda in 2000 in a bombing that killed 17 sailors and injured dozens more.

“I think it is symbolic of the importance that standing together we are much stronger than when we stand alone. The fact that we are doing this in front of the USS Cole… demonstrates that you might be able to knock us down, but you will not keep us down, and when we are together, we will be a force to be reckoned with,” Nardi said.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday night, ahead of the visit to the 5th Fleet, the head of the Defense Ministry’s influential Political-Defense Burea noted the significance of the US presence in the area, both to Israel and to other countries in the region.

“Our connection with the Americans is the most important one that the defense establishment has. It has no replacement, and that is how it will be. I have to say, the USA is not thinning out its forces from this region, tens of thousands of soldiers are spread out here, thousands in Bahrain, in Qatar, in the United Arab Emirates, in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, with planes, warships, defensive systems and other significant weapons,” Palti said.

The defense minister touched down in Bahrain on Wednesday evening on his first official visit to the country — though not his first visit — for a whirlwind tour in which he was scheduled to meet with top Bahraini officials, including the king, crown prince and defense minister.

Later on Thursday, Gantz planned to sign a security agreement with Manama, to improve communication between the two countries’ defense organizations.

Gantz’s visit came as the 5th Fleet launched its biennial International Maritime Exercise, known by its abbreviation IMX, a massive international drill with participants from around the world, including countries with which Israel does not have formal ties, like Saudi Arabia.

A US 5th Fleet spokesperson, Tim Hawkins, said the participating countries all knew who would be taking part in the exercise and were “coming and working together” toward the shared goal of safer seas.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the United States Navy’s 5th Fleet’s base in Bahrain, February 3, 2022 (Judah Ari Gross)

Israeli officials see a growing potential for formal ties with Saudi Arabia, as the regional power tracks the benefits of such relations currently being enjoyed by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which normalized ties with Jerusalem in September 2020. This thaw with Riyadh could also be seen in what is becoming an increasingly common, but still diplomatically sensitive, event: Gantz made his trip to Bahrain through Saudi Arabian airspace, marking one of the first known times that an Israeli Air Force plane made such a trip publicly.

The trip was the second governmental visit to the kingdom since Jerusalem and Manama normalized ties in September 2020. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid first visited the country in September 2021 to open Israel’s embassy in Manama.

Somewhat less influential than the other countries in the Persian Gulf, the oil-rich Bahrain is still considered to be a significant player in the region. It maintains a deep relationship with the United States military.

Both Israel and Bahrain consider Iran an enemy. For the Kingdom of Bahrain, the Islamic Republic represents a constant threat to its stability, as Iran has regularly backed revolutionary groups within the country over the years.

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