Israel and Bahrain to formalise diplomatic ties

Israel and Bahrain will officially establish diplomatic relations Sunday at a ceremony in Manama as the wealthy Gulf region continues to open up to the Jewish state.

An Israeli delegation, led by National Security Council chief Meir Ben Shabbat, arrived from Tel Aviv for a one-day trip that will see Israel and Bahrain formalise a US-brokered agreement they signed at the White House on September 15.

The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain became only the third and fourth Arab states to agree to normalise ties with Israel, following Israel’s 1979 peace deal with Egypt and a 1994 pact with Jordan. 

A flurry of diplomacy between some of Washington’s key regional allies has handed US President Donald Trump a key foreign policy win as he campaigns for re-election ahead of polls in November.

“Bahrain and Israel will sign a joint communique on the establishment of diplomatic, peaceful and friendly relations, as well as a number of memorandums of understanding in areas of mutual benefit,” according to a joint statement. 

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trump’s special assistant for international negotiations, Avi Berkowitz, travelled to Tel Aviv before joining the Israeli delegation’s flight to Manama.  

The two sides will be free to open embassies in each other’s countries after a ceremony scheduled for Sunday evening, Berkowitz said, adding that an Israeli embassy in Manama could open within months. 

“The agreement represents a historical step… to achieve security, peace and a flourishing region,” Bahrain’s foreign minister, Abdullatif al-Zayani, said upon the delegation’s arrival. 

– ‘Great day’ –

Israel’s Shabbat said in Arabic it was a “great day”, adding these relations will “most likely benefit both sides”. 

Before takeoff, he said the aim was “to translate into practical plans and concrete agreements the peace declaration that was signed on the White House lawn”.

The Jewish state’s normalisation of ties with the UAE and Bahrain has however outraged the Palestinians, who have called the deals “a stab in the back” and urged Arab states to maintain unity against Israel. 

Like Israel, both Manama and Abu Dhabi have vehemently anti-Iran foreign policies and Tehran has slammed the normalisation. 

The Gulf monarchies have broken decades of Arab consensus that there would be no relations with the Jewish state until it had made peace with the Palestinians.

Bahrain, unlike the UAE, has a history of open politics and civil society movements, although rights have been curtailed in the past decade.

In a rare display of dissent in the small oil-rich kingdom last month, dozens took to the streets in Abu-Saiba, a Shiite village near Manama, to protest the government’s decision.

In the wake of the Arab Spring protests in 2011, the Sunni monarchy accused thousands of dissidents from the Shiite majority of receiving orders from Iran. 

– Security talks –

Shabbat said the visit would focus on “finance and investments, trade and economy, tourism, aviation, communication, culture, science, technology, agriculture and additional issues”.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed his cabinet on Sunday, lauding what he called the “historic peace agreement” with Bahrain, and saying: “I hope that soon I’ll be able to tell you about more countries.”

The premier insists more Middle East states want ties with Israel as priorities have shifted.

Countries now value lucrative trade opportunities above positioning on the Palestinian conflict, he has argued.

Israel said it expected to sign six to eight memorandums of understanding with Bahrain, after which the US and Israeli delegations are expected to head to Abu Dhabi to take part in a business meeting, according to the US Department of State.

Security cooperation is also likely to feature prominently in bilateral relations, with Israel’s Mossad spy agency chief Yossi Cohen visiting Manama earlier this month to meet Bahrain’s security brass.

Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia has said it will not normalise ties without a resolution to the Palestinian issue.

Israel agreed to suspend annexation plans in the occupied West Bank in exchange for UAE ties but has expanded settlement activity since the deal was announced.

Israel’s parliament on Thursday ratified the normalisation agreement with the UAE, and a separate vote on the Bahrain pact is expected once the details are finalised. 

by AFP correspondent with Ben Simon in Jerusalem