Bahrain and Israel, a friendship rising in a sea of hostility

262 2017-09-23

An Israeli delegation welcomed in Manama. Plans to relax rules on Bahraini citizens visiting Israel. A reported joint Israel-Bahrain project for a museum of "religious tolerance". And perhaps most significantly, the Bahraini king reportedly denouncing the Arab boycott of Israel.

After decades of staunch opposition to Zionism and unfettered support for the Palestinian cause, tiny Bahrain appears on the cusp of becoming the first Gulf state to normalise relations with Israel - with one diplomatic source stating an official announcement could be made next year.

The primary reason for such a pivot can be found across the Gulf in Tehran, and what the Bahrain's Sunni Muslim elite sees as the rising threat of Shia Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. But the moves threaten to force more divisions in a country already facing a schism between the rulers and the Shia Muslim majority population.

While other Gulf states have secretly convened with Israeli officials to avoid public discontent and criticism, Bahrain has been open in its recent dealings. Indeed, the government has used the schism in Bahraini society as justification for the moves - to protect the country's national security from Iranian aggression and infiltration.

An informed diplomatic government source, with knowledge in the recent Israel-Bahrain talks, told Middle East Eye there are high-level contacts between government officials of both countries focusing on exchange visits between businessmen, influential social and religious figures. That, the source said, would in time be followed by official announcements of business deals between the two countries.

The source said the moves were part of a new reality in the Middle East in which, for example, Syria's president Bashar al-Assad was no longer considered a pariah by all.

"Israel does not threaten our security or conspire on us but Iran certainly does," the official said.

"The new French president was right when he stated that Assad is not an enemy of France and toppling him was not a priority - we believe in the same principle [on Israel] because our country's interests come first."

This in a state that still refers to Jerusalem as the "occupied city", and where imams have for years been encouraged by the government to call for the destruction of Israel.

The new normal

It was a Twitter post, in September last year, that acted as the public starting gun for the race for better relations.

Many Bahrainis were shocked to read the minister of foreign affairs, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, offering condolences, in English, to Israel over the death of its former president and prime minister, Shimon Peres.

Gulf states have no official diplomatic relations and contacts with Israel so far and have never commented on events happening in Israel and display sympathy with any of its government figures.

Two months later, a video clip was shared on social media showing Bahrainis in national dress dancing next to rabbis to a song titled "The people of Israel are alive" as they celebrated the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah in Manama.

Authorities said the event was a "special occasion" attached to a limited visit from Jewish-American businessmen supporting the local investments.

And on 11 May of this year, Manama witnessed the first visit of an Israeli official at the 67th congress of football's world governing body, FIFA.

The Bahrain Football Association president, Sheikh Ali Bin Khalifa al-Khalifa, told the local al-Bilad newspaper: "I am quite sure that hosting the FIFA congress meant to us more than allowing three members of the Israeli football association into Bahrain. We always look at the big picture."

And last week, Bahrain's Prince Nasser presented on behalf of his father King Hamad the Bahrain declaration on religious tolerance at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, described by the LA Times as "an unabashedly pro-Israel institution".

Separately, Israeli newspapers last week stated that the Bahraini king had denounced the Arab boycott of Israel in comments to Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the director of Global Social Action Agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, during their visit to Canaan in February.

Israel’s foreign ministry on Sunday seemingly backed the statements, writing on its Arabic Twitter account, “Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa denounced the Arab boycott against Israel and has confirmed that Bahraini citizens are now free to visit #Israel.”

However, the tweet was quickly deleted.

Rabbi Abraham and his partner Marvin Hier both visited Manama earlier this year, where Cooper met the Bahraini king to discuss the possibility of establishing a museum for religious tolerance in Manama, according to a Bahraini official.

Ksenia Svetlova, an MP for the Zionist Union, wondered on Twitter: "Very good. Hopefully this breaking news will not be denied later. Also, what about Israeli citizens visiting Manama?"

Opposition rises

Such overtures have been less than popular among many in Bahrain - not least the condolences offered to Israel on the death of Peres.

Bahraini Twitter accounts expressed anger and discontent at the foreign minister's comments, stating they not only excused Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, but Peres' war crimes in Lebanon and Palestine.

Khalel said: "How could he rest in peace while the cries of mothers whom had lost their children hunt him to the grave? How could he rest in peace and the blood of martyrs in Palestine and Lebanon cries for vengeance.

Khalil Bhazaa said: "You offer your condolences to a person who perpetrated the Qana massacre [during the Lebanese war].

"You offer your condolences to a person who participated in the expulsion of an Arab population from its original homeland?

"You offer your condolences to a man who lead an occupation.

Social media networks were filled scorn for the Israeli visit to the FIFA congress, with the Hashtag #Bahrain_refuses_normalisation being used. Twelve civil society groups joined forces to launch an "association to resist normalisation".

Its leader, Jamal al-Hassan, said: "The interests and aims the Bahraini government is going to achieve are nothing compared to the value of Palestinian blood."

Mohammad Khaled, a former member of the upper house of the Bahrain parliament, and affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Tweeted: "Believe it or not... parliament failed to issue a statement (just a statement) condemning the Israeli presence on Bahraini soil.

Opposition to normalisation is not confined to one section of Bahraini society. Rasool, who is affiliated with the Shia sect in the kingdom, said on Twitter: "It is shameful for my country to have the flag of the Zionist entity on its soil."

Ali Al-Fayez, an opposition political activist, said the Palestinian cause had always united Bahrainis and that the government did not represent the will and political orientation of the people.

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