Israeli leader Naftali Bennett meets with Bahrain counterpart, signaling regional shift

MANAMA, Bahrain — Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met his Bahraini counterpart Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa in Bahrai...


MANAMA, Bahrain — Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met his Bahraini counterpart Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa in Bahrain on Tuesday in a warm welcome that provided the latest evidence of the recent rapid Middle East policy realignment.

Mr Bennett was due to meet later that afternoon with the prince’s father, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the head of state of Bahrain, a tiny but strategically located Gulf state.

Before meeting the royal family, Mr. Bennett met with members of Bahrain’s small Jewish community. Mr. Bennett gave them a shofar, the Jewish musical horn.

“I am very happy to be here in Bahrain, and I couldn’t think of a better way to kick off this visit than to see my family here in Bahrain,” he said. “You are all indeed family. I come from Israel with good will, with a warm friendship between the two peoples, and I am sure that you can be a remarkable bridge between Bahrain and Israel.

Mr. Bennett’s trip to Bahrain, the first official visit by an Israeli Prime Minister to the countryshowed the growing strength of ties between Israel and several Arab governments over the past 18 months.

Since 2020, Israel has for the first time established formal diplomatic relations with Bahrain and the united arab emiratesrenew relations with Moroccoand improved them with Sudan.

For years, the vast majority of the Arab world refused to normalize relations with Israel until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved.

Mr Bennett arrived in Bahrain on Monday evening, stepping off his plane on a red carpet lined with a guard of honor, a greeting that underscores how priorities have changed for some countries in the region.

For Bahrain, the containment of Iran and its armed proxies throughout the region – a goal shared with Israel – is now more important than Palestinian sovereignty, especially since Iran accelerates its nuclear enrichment.

Bahrain, which is also a US ally and hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, will host an Israeli military officer for the first time as part of a regional alliance, an Israeli official confirmed on Tuesday. The objective is to ensure freedom of navigation and international trade in the Persian Gulf, following several attacks by Iran and its proxies against ships in the region.

Bahrain’s invitation to Bennett also hinted at growing acceptance of Israel’s role in the region by Saudi Arabia, the most influential state in the Arab world and a major Iranian rival.

Officially, Saudi officials deny that the kingdom plans to follow Bahrain in normalizing relations with Israel. The kingdom also denied that the de facto Saudi leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, held a secret summit meeting in 2020 with Mr. Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was still in office at the time.

But Saudi support is crucial for Bahrain – Saudi troops rushed to Bahrain in 2011 to help its government crush an uprising, and the Saudi government bailed out Bahrain’s economy in 2018 – and analysts say Bahrain, as as a Saudi proxy, doesn’t do much without his agreement.

“Bahrain always regards Saudi Arabia as its big brother who always stands by its side in difficult times,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist and expert on Gulf politics.

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

Saudi leaders have also made statements about Israel and the Palestinians that until recently would have been unthinkable. In 2018, Prince Mohammed hit the headlines claiming that Israelis had a right to their own land. Two years later, another Saudi prince, Bandar bin Sultan, criticized Palestinian leaders as failures for ordinary Palestinians.

Saudi movie theaters are currently showing a feature film, “Death on the Nile”, which stars an Israeli actress, Gal Gadot, who is unpopular in the Arab world for her public support for Israeli military action in Gaza.

Ties are also warming between Israel and the two Arab countries with which it previously forged an uneasy peace, Egypt and Jordan.

Egyptian President Abdul Fatah al-Sisi rose to prominence in Israel on Monday when he pretended to publicly greet a visiting Israeli government minister, Karine Elharrar, in front of hundreds of other Arab dignitaries.

But while ties between governments are growing, general public sentiment in Israel and the Arab world is lagging behind.

Polls suggest that a majority of Arabs do not support the recent diplomatic thaw in Israel. In Bahrain, where dissent is being carefully contained, photos and videos posted to social media on Tuesday showed small groups of demonstrators protesting against the Bahraini government and Israel.

International rights watchdogs say Bahrain has no free news media and its judges are appointed by the royal family. The Khalifa family is a Sunni Muslim dynasty that has ruled Bahrain since 1783, presiding over a predominantly Shia population, whose members say they experience systemic sectarian discrimination.

Bahraini human rights activists in exile noted that Bennett’s visit fell on the 11th anniversary of the 2011 uprising, and called it a betrayal of the Palestinian national movement and an endorsement of Israel’s policies at its respect.

“It feels like a damning insult,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, advocacy director at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, a London-based campaign group. “This is the most significant date in Bahrain’s recent history, when Bahrainis rose up against an autocracy – and 11 years later invited the head of an apartheid state.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Israeli leader Naftali Bennett meets with Bahrain counterpart, signaling regional shift
Israeli leader Naftali Bennett meets with Bahrain counterpart, signaling regional shift
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