March 27, 2023

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Israeli leader Naftali Bennett meets his Bahraini counterpart and signals a regional shift

Israeli leader Naftali Bennett meets his Bahraini counterpart and signals a regional shift

MANAMA, Bahrain – Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met Tuesday in Bahrain with the Bahraini king and crown prince, part of a warm welcome that provided the latest evidence of this rapid change. Reorganizing Middle East Politics.

The first visit of an Israeli prime minister to Bahrain, a small but strategically located Gulf state, underlined the speed with which Israel has strengthened ties with many Arab governments since the country established formal diplomatic relations with the two seas And The United Arab Emiratesestablished relations with Morocco, West, sunsetand improve it with Sudanevery year 2020.

But the subtle dynamics of the visit also highlighted that Israel’s new relations remain largely government-level agreements that are still far from becoming community-level agreements between Israeli and Arab audiences.

Mr. Bennett acknowledged this in his remarks to Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s Prime Minister, at the beginning of their meeting.

He said, “Our goal in this visit is to transform it from peace between a government to a government to a peace between the two peoples, and to transform it from celebrations to a substance.”

“In terms of substance, exactly,” Prince Salman replied, describing the meeting as “cousins ​​getting together.”

In this regard, the visit was just the beginning.

Mr. Bennett exchanged warm conversations with Prince Salman, a guard of honor played the Israeli national anthem and a fun question-and-answer session with a group of Bahraini youth – a rare exchange between Arab civilians and an Israeli leader.

“When can we visit?” Asked Saud Al-Hadi, an employee at the Central Bank of Bahrain.

Mr. Bennett replied, “Would you like to come on my plane?”

But these interactions have been carefully managed.

Mr. Bennett’s meetings with the Emir and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa took place away from the journalists who traveled with his entourage. Young Bahrainis were hand-picked members of the country’s upper middle class – mostly bankers and businessmen whose questions were screened beforehand.

The visit was featured prominently in the local media, which is tightly controlled by the Bahraini government.

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Opposition leaders and rights activists have condemned the visit, which took place on the 11th anniversary of the failed uprising against the Bahraini royal family, a Sunni dynasty that has ruled Bahrain’s predominantly Shiite population since 1783.

opposition group Spread Video and photos of small protests against the decision to invite Mr. Bennett.

However, Mr. Bennett said he was affected by the meetings.

He said in a press briefing with journalists shortly before his return to Israel. “For the average Israeli in their 80s, these are big things.”

While this change was undeniable, the broader change he was seeking was not likely to happen overnight.

“Plate tectonics in the region are shifting,” said Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli political commentator who traveled with Mr. Bennett. “While the direction of this shift is clear, they cause tremors, not earthquakes.”

The visit itself highlighted how priorities have changed for some countries in the region.

For years, the vast majority of the Arab world has refused to normalize relations with Israel as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved.

But for Bahrain and the UAE, the containment of Iran and its armed proxies across the region – a goal shared with Israel – now appears more important than an immediate solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially since Iran accelerates uranium enrichment.

An Israeli official confirmed on Tuesday that Bahrain will host for the first time an Israeli army officer as part of a regional alliance. The Israeli military said this would be the first time an Israeli officer had been deployed to a Gulf country.

The goal is to ensure freedom of navigation and international trade in the Persian Gulf, then Several attacks by Iran and its proxies on ships in the region.

Bahrain’s invitation to Mr. Bennett also hinted at a growing acceptance of Israel’s role in the region by Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s most powerful country and main Iranian adversary.

Officially, Saudi officials deny that the kingdom plans to pursue Bahrain by normalizing relations with Israel.

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But Saudi support is important to Bahrain — Saudi forces rushed to Bahrain in 2011 to help its government crush an uprising, and the Saudi government bailed out the Bahraini economy in 2018 — and analysts say Bahrain, as a Saudi proxy, does nothing without it. an agreement.

“Bahrain always looks to Saudi Arabia as the big brother who always stands by it in times of difficulty,” said Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, an Emirati political science professor and expert on Gulf affairs.

“There is more coordination than many people might assume between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia” and the other Gulf states, Mr. Abdullah added.

Prominent Saudi leaders have also made statements about Israel and the Palestinians that were only recently imagined. In 2018, the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, made headlines by confirming this The Israelites had a right to their own land. Two years later, another Saudi prince, Bandar bin Sultan, criticized the Palestinian leadership as a loser to ordinary Palestinians.

Saudi cinemas are currently showing a feature film entitled “Death on the Nile,” starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot, who has been widely criticized in the Arab world for her public support for the Israeli military operations in Gaza.

A group of Saudi journalists also attended Mr. Bennett’s chat with young Bahrainis, in a sign of Saudi Arabia’s growing interest in Israel.

Mr. Bennett also met with Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain. A number of Bahraini ministers. and members of the Jewish community in Bahrain, to whom he presented a shofar, a ceremonial Jewish horn.

The two governments said they had made real progress in economic and trade cooperation. The Israeli government announced an agreement with Bahrain to finance joint business ventures in the areas of climate-related technology, manufacturing, and e-commerce.

Bennett said Israel’s airline, Israir, would soon begin bi-monthly flights to Bahrain. Khaled Humaidan, CEO of the state-run Bahrain Investment Agency, said that two Israeli companies are on the cusp of completing two major investments in the Bahraini logistics and healthcare sectors.

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Relations are also warming between Israel and the two Arab states with which they have made an uneasy peace, Egypt and Jordan.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi drew attention in Israel on Monday when he publicly saluted visiting Israeli government minister, Karen El-Harr, in front of hundreds of other Arab dignitaries.

But if ties between governments are strengthened, Arab public sentiment declines.

Opinion polls indicate that a majority of Arabs across the region do not support the recent diplomatic thaw with Israel, although there is no survey data available for Bahrain. Bahraini human rights activists in exile described Mr. Bennett’s visit as a betrayal of the Palestinian national movement and an endorsement of Israel’s policies towards it.

“It sounds like a severe insult,” said Syed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, a London-based campaign group. “This is the most important date in Bahrain’s modern history, when Bahrainis stood against tyranny – and 11 years later they called on the head of an apartheid state.”

Mr. Bennett’s enthusiasm for a diplomatic thaw with countries as far away as Bahrain has been met with rising tensions between Israelis and Palestinians back home, with a solution between the two looking more distant than ever.

For several days, Palestinians, Israeli settlers and the police clashed in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem At the heart of the tensions That led to the outbreak of war in Gaza last year.

Against this background, some Palestinians said they were particularly affected by the timing of Bahrain’s invitation to Mr. Bennett.

“We don’t expect you to start a war with Israel,” said Maher Salah Najjar, 59, a retiree in Nablus in the West Bank. “But at least make sure you don’t hurt our feelings.”

Rawan Sheikh Ahmed Contributed to reporting from Haifa, Israel and Mira Novick from Jerusalem.