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From covert to overt: Warming relations between Bahrain and Israel no longer a secret Open in fullscreen

Suzan Quitaz

From covert to overt: Warming relations between Bahrain and Israel no longer a secret

Protests erupted against a US-led meeting on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict being held in Bahrain [Getty]

Date of publication: 17 December, 2019

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The associations between Israel and some Gulf monarchies like Bahrain have evolved to a point where they have transformed the geopolitical map of the region.
In June 2019, the Kingdom of Bahrain hosted an international conference in Manama entitled Peace to Prosperity, which was attended by Rabbi Marc Schneier, Special Adviser to King Hamad of Bahrain. During the conference, Rabbi Schneier told an I24News reporter, "I am going to stand by my prediction that this conference is the testament to King Hamad's commitment to establish a relationship with Israel." 

Similarly, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Ahmed al-Khalifa, gave an unprecedented interview to the Times of Israel where he remarked: "Who did we offer peace to? The Peace Initiative? We offered it to a state named Israel… We do believe that Israel is a country that is here to stay, and we want better relations with it, and we want peace with it."

The mellowing of ties between Israel and the Gulf monarchies is no longer a secret. The growing openness about this reflects not only the change in regional dynamics, but also highlights that their outreach to Israel is due to necessitate.

In the case of Bahrain, it appears to be more eager than the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to establish formal relations with Israel.

The signs of growing ties between Bahrain and Israel can be traced back to the early 1990s, more specifically, to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, where it quickly became apparent that Kuwait was too weak to deter the Iraqi aggression.

The national interests of Bahrain and the realisation that it alone could not maintain an appropriate security framework pushed the kingdom to turn to an outside ally for protection. That ally was found in Israel, a military superior to bolster regional security against the Iranian threat.
The mellowing of ties between Israel and the Gulf monarchies is no longer a secret
The fear of Iran and the road to Tel Aviv
 
The associations between Israel and some Gulf monarchies have evolved to a point where they have transformed the geopolitical map of the region. In the case of Bahrain, reaching out to Israel has brought numerous changes including a more visible and gradual turn towards normalisation.

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Unlike most Arab states, Bahrain regards Iran as an existential threat to its very survival. In the 20th century, Iran periodically made claims that the entire territory of Bahrain historically belonged to Iran.

Even though, Iran has toned down these claims, WikiLeaks cables revealed that the leaders of Bahrain continue to remain deeply suspicious of Iran. The cables further revealed that "Bahraini leaders sometimes speak to US officials of their genuine worries that Iranian missiles are sighted on targets such as the NAVCENT headquarters in downtown Manama and the royal palaces".

In addition to any territorial dispute, Bahrain experiences rife tensions between its Shia majority and the ruling Sunni minority. Most of Bahrain's Shias are Arabs, but about 15 percent of them are ethnic Persians. Around 30 percent of Bahraini Shias follow clerics who look to more senior clerics in Iran for guidance. This very fact makes Iran position itself as the protector of Bahrain's Shia majority, and echoes the wider regional confrontation between Shia Iran and the Gulf's Sunni leaders.

Despite there being no diplomatic relations between Bahrain and Israel, there are three levels of cooperation, namely in the field of security, military and intelligence sharing; trade, including hi-tech, and sporting, culture and religious events.

The last category of events occurs regularly and visibly despite the Arab League's call of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

In 1994, Israel's Minister for Environment Yossi Sarid visited Manama and met with Bahrain's Foreign Minister and Minister for Health. The relationship between the two nations was to further develop in 2005, when King Hamad instructed his government to stop referring to Israel as the 'Zionist entity' in official statements.
King Hamad's statement was seen to be controversial as it was the first time an Arab state explicitly showed 'concern' for Israel's security
In 2007, Bahrain's Foreign Minister met with his Israeli counterpart at the UN. In 2009, the then Israeli President Shimon Peres and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met with the King of Bahrain in New York, who publically advocated the Arab Peace Initiative as the only way to end the suffering of the Palestinians, and to guarantee Israel security.

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King Hamad's statement was seen to be controversial as it was the first time an Arab state explicitly showed 'concern' for Israel's security.

Another factor to why this statement further agitated the general Arab public is that the Gaza war had ended a few months prior. 

In December 2017, US President Trump announced that the US embassy would move to Jerusalem and subsequently recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. At that time a cross-sectarian Bahraini group was visiting Israel. The government of Bahrain repeatedly claimed the visit was apolitical, but the timing suggests that Bahrain was testing the water to see what could happen if they too recognised Israel as a state.

The Bahraini delegation's visit to Israel caused significant controversy, Ebrahim Sharif, a former leader of the Waad political party, wrote on Twitter: "I consider this visit by the delegation a betrayal of the Palestinian people".

In May 2018, Iranian forces in Syria fired rockets at Israeli targets in the Golan Heights which prompted an Israeli retaliatory response. Bahrain's Foreign Minister Khalid al-Khalifa declared his open support to Israel remarking that, "It is the right of any country in the region, including Israel, to defend itself by destroying sources of danger."

The Palestinian authority called for a boycott of the Peace to Prosperity Conference. Despite the absence of top Israeli officials, there was something unique about this conference – it went ahead without any anti-Zionist comments and instead Israeli businessmen were seen mingling with their Arab counterparts.
The ties between Bahrain and Israel have since the early 1990s moved gradually from covert to overt
On July 18, 2019, the Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz posted on his Twitter account an image of himself with Bahrain's Foreign Minister Khalid al-Khalifa, celebrating yet another example of their nations growing diplomatic relations.
On October 21, 2019, the Maritime and Air-Investigation Security Conference was held in Bahrain and attended by Israeli Foreign Ministry official Dana Benvenisit, Head of the Counter-terrorism Department.

On December 9, 2019, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar of Jerusalem visited Bahrain, making him the first rabbi of his stature to visit an Arab country. During his visit he met with King Hamad.

The ties between Bahrain and Israel have since the early 1990s moved gradually from covert to overt.

The public display of relations between the two nations should not be surprising, as it is just another planned logical step in increasingly diverse diplomatic associations between the two nations, paving the way to a full welcome of Israel in the region.

Netanyahu believes the dream of normalisation is in the horizon with some of Gulf states, even without a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

History will tell if that is going to materialise, but the image of Bahrain's Foreign Minister with Israel Katz, surely conveys it all.

 
Suzan Quitaz is a researcher specialising in counter terrorism and policing, politics and society in Israel, history of Zionism and anti-Semitism

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