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Israeli Delegation Cements Normalization with Bahrain
Left to right: Israeli National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat; US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman; US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; and US Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz prepare to board El Al Flight 973 from Tel Aviv to Manama on October 18. (David Azagury, US Embassy Jerusalem)

Israeli Delegation Cements Normalization with Bahrain

In fast-changing Middle East, Arab, Jewish nations make more history in Gulf

Israel and Bahrain on Sunday formally signed a “joint communiqué on the establishment of diplomatic, peaceful and friendly relations.”

Signing on behalf of Bahrain was Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani. Signing for Israel was Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz.

Ushpiz was just one member of a delegation of Israeli officials headed by National Security Council chief Meir Ben-Shabbat who traveled to Bahrain on Sunday for meetings with local counterparts in yet another on a long list of firsts in a quickly evolving Middle East.

The Israeli team, which also included the directors-general of the Tourism and Communications ministries, was greeted in Bahrain’s capital Manama by Al Zayani.

“Today, we put in place foundations through which we can reach [the] goal of… genuine and lasting peace,” Bahrain’s top diplomat remarked after the El Al Israel Airlines plane touched down.

Today, we put in place foundations through which we can reach the goal of… genuine and lasting peace

“My hope is that this visit marks another step on the road to a truly peaceful, secure, stable and thriving Middle East,” he added, stressing the importance of safeguarding “the rights of the Middle East’s peoples.”

This was apparently a reference to the Palestinians, who have felt betrayed by the willingness of some Gulf states to recognize Israel before a Palestinian state is formed.

Ben-Shabbat thanked his hosts, promising in Arabic that the two nations would soon “change the reality in the region.”

Following the airport ceremony, the delegations conducted bilateral work meetings in the hopes of forging concrete economic ties.

The Israelis departed Tel Aviv accompanied by the US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz. The two will travel on Monday to the neighboring United Arab Emirates for a second summit, after which they will return to Israel, this time joined by UAE dignitaries who make the first official visit to the Jewish state by Emiratis.

“[We are] actively working on other [peace] deals. We’re very hopeful that there will be other announcements,” Mnuchin told the Israeli press pool in Manama. “There are lots more in the works.”

We are actively working on other peace deals. We’re very hopeful that there will be other announcements. There are lots more in the works

The Reuters pool reporter for the foreign press noted in a dispatch that the visit seemed to have been hurriedly organized.

“Unlike with the delegation to Abu Dhabi on [August] 31, this time it seems there was no time to arrange kosher food for the several delegates (US and Israeli both) who are religiously observant Jews, a US official said. Instead, the El Al stewards issued everyone with sandwiches as we landed in Manama to take with us.”

The August 31 delegation traveled to the UAE to finalize aspects of the Abraham Accords, signed on September 15 at the White House in Washington by Al Zayani, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the presence of US President Donald Trump.

In early August, news first broke about historic understanding reached between Israel and the UAE, to be followed barely a month later by similar news regarding Israel and Bahrain. Yet the two pacts followed distinctly different paths.

The process by which the Israeli-UAE agreement was brought about drew criticism from many in Israel after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu boasted that he had not consulted or informed his foreign and defense ministers, both members of the rival Blue and White party in his unity government, prior to the deal being made known.

Several days later, it was also revealed that as part of the transaction, Netanyahu agreed not to oppose the sale of state-of-the-art F-35 stealth fighter jets by Washington to Abu Dhabi, breaking with a longstanding Israeli policy of trying to prevent Arab states from receiving advanced American weaponry.

The agreement to normalize ties with Bahrain, however, was a result of continuing cooperation and coordination between Netanyahu and both Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz of Blue and White.

The Kingdom of Bahrain, located in the southern Persian Gulf, is a tiny island state, population about 1.6 million and composed of nearly 100 natural and artificial islands. It is connected by the 15.5-mile King Fahd Causeway to its closest neighbor, Saudi Arabia, which, beside supporting Bahrain financially, also helped King Hamad quell 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that threatened to topple him from his throne.

There is a small Jewish community of 34 there. The last time there was a minyan (10 participants for prayer) at the Jewish Community Synagogue of Bahrain, located in Manama’s old market district, was during last year’s Peace for Prosperity conference, led by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner.

Houda Nounoo, a member of the community and a former Bahraini ambassador to Washington, told reporters: “We’re planning to open on February 25, which is Purim.”

When asked whether the Bahrain-Israel deal might boost its numbers, Ibraheem Nounoo, the head of the community, said: “If we’ve got diplomatic relations and we’ve got Jewish people in the embassy, and we’ve got also Jews who are from the American [military] base − I think we are going to have enough numbers to have minyans regularly.”

If we’ve got diplomatic relations and we’ve got Jewish people in the embassy, and we’ve got also Jews who are from the American military base − I think we are going to have enough numbers to have minyans regularly

There is no Torah scroll in the synagogue’s ark. Kushner presented one to Bahrain’s king last month, and the community plans to place it in the synagogue when it opens.

A photo hangs at the synagogue in Manama showing US presidential adviser Jared Kushner presenting a Torah to Bahrain’s king last month. (Dan Williams)

“Coexistence in Bahrain,” Ibraheem Nounoo said, was here way before anyone began talking about coexistence and tolerance.”

Parts of this report are based on pool reporting.

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