MANAMA, Bahrain — Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Tuesday said Bahrain wants to upgrade its relationship with the Jewish state, as he wrapped up the first official visit by an Israeli premier to the Gulf kingdom.
Bennett touted increased cooperation on bilateral trade and tourism, but behind the scenes, his talks with the kingdom’s leadership focused on countering Iran, an official said.
“It is clear that there is a strong desire by the leadership in Bahrain to be in a significant and multidimensional relationship with Israel,” Bennett told reporters traveling with him.
“What we’re all trying to do is form a new regional architecture of moderate countries,” Bennett told reporters. “This architecture will provide stability, economic prosperity and be able to stand strong against the enemies who are fomenting chaos and terror. So it’s sort of a ring of stability.”
Bennett met with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and senior Bahraini ministers during the one-day trip, which ended Tuesday evening.
Israel and Bahrain established full diplomatic relations in 2020 as part of the US-brokered “Abraham Accords,” a series of diplomatic deals between Israel and four Arab countries. The visit came two weeks after Benny Gantz became the first Israeli defense minister to publicly visit the country.
— Khaled Al Jalahma (@BahrainAmbIsr) February 18, 2022
A senior diplomatic official said Bennett’s talks with the king and crown prince focused largely on “regional issues” such as Iran.
“The moderate states of the region are dealing with similar challenges and when there are difficult neighbors in the face of a rapidly changing world, the leaders understand that, together with Israel, an anchor of stability has been created,” the official said.
“The leaders of the region are very impressed by the Israeli position regarding Iran and Syria, and by the fact that deterrence means both the ability and willingness to use force,” the official added.
Bennett did not explicitly mention Iran in his public comments. But the context was clear. Bahrain is located on Iran’s doorstep in the Persian Gulf, and both countries are deeply concerned about Iran’s nuclear program and its military activities across the region.
In a statement before his departure late Tuesday, Bennett’s office said the leaders discussed “expanding strategic and security relations to address regional challenges, including nuclear threats, terrorist activity, religious extremism, poverty, and social challenges.”
Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani told Israeli reporters that Bennett invited the crown prince, who is also prime minister, to visit Israel.
Zayani said the visit would “take place in the near future.”
Al Zayani said Manama and Jerusalem would cooperate on countering Iran and had agreed to strengthen their economic ties as well as mutual tourism.
Bennett said that there were a number of issues to follow up on following his meetings, particularly regarding direct flights. He called for increased trade and tourism.
“There are challenges and we are dealing with it,” he said.
Bennett said the goal of his trip was to beef up the Abraham Accords, a series of US-backed agreements signed in 2020 that established diplomatic ties between Israel and several Arab countries.
“Only if there is real practical political, economic and other [steps], then this connection will remain sustainable and we can expand it,” he said.
The prime minister noted Israeli ties with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, another signatory of the Abraham Accords, were different in nature than Israel’s longer-standing relations with Egypt and Jordan.
“It’s easier because we didn’t fight Bahrain, but the goal is to establish a regional network of ties, a ring of alliances,” he said.
Bennett’s office and Bahrain released a joint statement summarizing the key points discussed in the meetings and said the countries agreed on a 10-year plan for expanding ties in numerous fields dubbed “The Joint Warm Peace Strategy”
“As part of the Strategy, the Israeli and Bahraini governments will support programs, such as student exchanges, that will strengthen bonds and foster dialogue and understanding between the countries’ young people,” the statement said.
Before meeting Tuesday with Bahraini leaders, Bennett met with the local Bahraini Jewish community. Bennett called the Jewish community “family,” saying that they play a special role in advancing the normalization process between the Jewish state and Bahrain.
Bahrain’s tiny Jewish community, about 50 people, has practiced its faith behind closed doors since 1947, when the Gulf country’s only synagogue was destroyed in disturbances at the start of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But when Bahrain normalized ties with Israel, it opened everything up, with the small synagogue in the heart of the capital renovated at a cost of $159,000.
The prime minister also met with the commander of the US Fifth Fleet Vice Admiral Bradford Cooper, and praised the cooperation between the US and Israeli militaries, which, he said, contributes to the security of both countries. according to a statement from his office.
Bennett added that the presence of the US Fifth Fleet is a significant factor in maintaining regional stability against various security threats and that he looks forward to increased cooperation among regional allies of the US.
Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report.