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With large majority, Knesset approves normalization agreement with Bahrain

Sixty-two MKs vote in favor and 14 — all from Joint List — against establishment of diplomatic ties with tiny Gulf nation; deal soon to be ratified by cabinet

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Benny Gantz, center, and Benjamin Netanyahu, right, at the Knesset on November 10, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset spokesperson)
Benny Gantz, center, and Benjamin Netanyahu, right, at the Knesset on November 10, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset spokesperson)

The Knesset on Tuesday approved Israel’s agreement on the establishment of diplomatic relations with Bahrain with an overwhelming majority, giving Jerusalem the go-ahead to forge ties with a second Gulf state in as many months.

The vote came following a marathon five-hour legislative session that featured some 80 lawmakers giving speeches to the plenum.

Sixty-two lawmakers voted in favor; 14 — all from the predominantly-Arab Joint List party — opposed the agreement. There were no abstentions.

The so-called “Joint Communiqué on the establishment of diplomatic, peaceful, and friendly relations” will now head back to the cabinet, where it is expected to be ratified with unanimous support.

“Bahrain is a small country but it has big aspirations,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the beginning of the debate.

This picture from June 25, 2019, shows a general view of the Four Seasons Hotel (R) in the Bahraini capital Manama, where the “Peace to Prosperity” Workshop is taking place. (Stringer/AFP)

He also vowed that additional Arab countries will soon publicize “the normalization that is being developed” with Israel.

On top of Bahrain, Israel recently signed a normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates, and is also in the midst of establishing ties with Sudan.

“The buds of normalization are already there, waiting to bloom,” Netanyahu said. “I will continue with the policy I have charted​, I am convinced that the blossoming will be seen above the surface as well, and there will be more countries that will join the circle of peace.”

He said the normalization agreements will stand “as a wall” against the forces of radical Islamism, led by Iran.

“Peace deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and normalization with Sudan have not fallen on us from the sky,” the prime minister went on. “It has come from a change in policy. In the last decade, Israeli governments have systematically nurtured our power when it comes to security, economy, cyber, foreign relations and other spheres.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset plenum during a vote on Israel’s normalization deal with Bahrain, November 10, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset Spokesperson)

Netanyahu also took a jab at the Joint List, which last month voted against the normalization agreement with the UAE. “Today you have the opportunity to make amends. And if not today, we will give you many more chances later,” he said.

The prime minister also slammed Palestinian intransigence on the peace process. “I believe the peace deals with the Arab world can eventually wake up the Palestinians, and as a result they will give up their extreme demands, the practical result of which is the destruction of Israel.”

Defense Minister Gantz also took the Palestinians to task in his speech.

“The Abraham Accords can expand to other countries in the region, but, equally important, their spirit should extend to our closest neighbors, the Palestinians,” he said. “Unfortunately, [the] Palestinian leadership has not internalized the fact that the time has come to put the excuses aside, to get back to the negotiating table, to security and civil coordination, and to work together to find solutions.”

Joint List head Ayman Odeh lamented that Israelis were celebrating a deal with distant Gulf states while the Palestinians remain stateless. “There will not be peace without an end to the cursed occupation,” he thundered.

Ahmad Tibi, also from the Joint List, used much of his speech to eulogize Saeb Erekat, the senior Palestinian official who had died earlier on Tuesday.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben Shabbat, Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz and other Bahraini and Israeli officials participate in the signing ceremony of a peace agreement between Israel and Bahrain, in Manama on October 18, 2020. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)

On October 18, at a solemn ceremony in Manama, Israel and Bahrain signed the Joint Communiqué, which is not legally a treaty, but rather a “framework agreement.” However, with the signing of this document, Israel and Bahrain formally established diplomatic relations, Israeli officials said at the time.

In that document, signed by Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, the two countries agreed to “recognize and respect each other’s sovereignty and right to live in peace and security, promote lasting security and eschew the threat and use of force… and settle all disputes by agreed peaceful means.”

The document does not mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, according to a statement released by the Bahraini government, which it said was a joint statement, the two parties will “continue their efforts to achieve a just, comprehensive, and enduring resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The text did not explicitly mention the goal of Palestinian statehood or a two-state solution.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani and Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat, at the signing ceremony of a peace agreement between Israel and Bahrain, in Manama, October 18, 2020. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)

Bahraini Ambassador to the US Abdullah bin Rashid Al Khalifa wrote recently in Fortune magazine that Manama remains committed to the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Still, now is the time for “a new approach,” he wrote. “Bahrain’s future — like its past — depends on openness, tolerance, and diversity.”

The October 18 signing ceremony marked only the fourth peace agreement between the Jewish state and an Arab country, and the second in weeks.

On October 25, the cabinet ratified the “Treaty of Peace, Diplomatic Relations, and Full Normalization Between the United Arab Emirates and the State of Israel,” which the two sides had signed during a historic White House ceremony on September 15.

That came after a Knesset session that saw over 100 lawmakers get up to make speeches, before a vote in which the only opposition came from members of the Joint List.

The UAE has yet to ratify the agreement.

Also in late October, Israel and Sudan agreed to normalize relations and to “end the state of belligerence between their nations” in a deal brokered by the US administration.

Jerusalem and Sudan also said they would “begin economic and trade relations,” but a joint statement issued at the time did not mention the establishment of full diplomatic ties.

No formal agreement has been signed between the two sides, but an Israeli delegation is reportedly set to travel to Sudan early next week to hammer out the details of the normalization process.

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