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

MANAMA, Bahrain — Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met the King and Crown Prince of Bahrain in Bahrain on Tuesday, part of a warm ...

MANAMA, Bahrain — Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met the King and Crown Prince of Bahrain in Bahrain on Tuesday, part of a warm welcome that provided the latest proof of the speed Middle East policy realignment.

The first visit by an Israeli prime minister to Bahrain, a tiny but strategically located Gulf state, Bennett’s trip underscored how quickly Israel has cemented its ties with several Arab governments since the country formalized diplomatic ties with Bahrain and the united arab emiratesrenew relations with Moroccoand improved them with Sudanall in 2020.

But the delicate dynamics of the visit also highlighted how Israel’s new relationship remains largely government-level agreements that are still far from becoming society-wide pacts between Israeli and Arab publics.

Mr Bennett acknowledged this in his comments to Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the Bahraini prime minister, at the start of their meeting.

“Our goal in this visit is to transform it from a government-to-government peace to a people-to-people peace,” he said, “and to transform it from ceremonies to substance.”

“Basically, exactly,” Prince Salman replied, describing the reunion as “cousins ​​getting together.”

From this point of view, the visit was only the beginning.

Mr Bennett shared warm exchanges with Prince Salman, was treated to a guard of honor who played the Israeli national anthem and held a light-hearted Q&A with a group of young Bahrainis – a rare exchange between Arab civilians and an Israeli leader. .

“When can we visit?” asked Saud al-Hadi, an employee of the Central Bank of Bahrain.

Mr. Bennett replied, “You want to get on my plane?

But these interactions were carefully managed.

Mr. Bennett’s meetings with the Prince and King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa were kept away from journalists who traveled with his entourage. Young Bahrainis were hand-picked members of the country’s upper middle class – mostly bankers and businessmen whose issues were vetted.

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

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

An opposition group job video and footage of small protests against the decision to invite Mr. Bennett.

Still, Mr Bennett said he was moved by the meetings.

“As someone who has fought in many wars over the years, to be in the capital of an Arab country and hear Hatikva” – Israel’s national anthem – “is moving,” he said. during a briefing with reporters shortly before returning to Israel. . “For a typical Israeli who came of age in the 80s, that’s something big.”

While this change was undeniable, the larger change he was looking for probably wasn’t going to happen overnight.

“The tectonic plates in the region are shifting,” said Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli political commentator who traveled with Mr. Bennett. “Although the direction of this change is clear, these 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 refused to normalize relations with Israel until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved.

But for Bahrain and the Emirates, the containment of Iran and its armed proxies throughout the region – a goal shared with Israel – now seems more important than an immediate resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially since Iran accelerates its nuclear enrichment.

Bahrain will host an Israeli military officer for the first time as part of a regional alliance, an Israeli official confirmed on Tuesday. It will be the first time an Israeli officer will be posted to a Persian Gulf country, the Israeli military said.

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.

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, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made headlines when he claimed 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 has been widely criticized in the Arab world for her public support for Israeli military action in Gaza. .

A group of Saudi journalists also witnessed Bennett’s conversation with young Bahrainis, a sign of growing Saudi interest in Israel.

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

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

Mr Bennett said an Israeli airline, Israir, would soon begin twice-weekly flights to Bahrain. Two Israeli companies are set to make two major investments in Bahrain’s logistics and healthcare sectors, said Khalid Humeidan, managing director of a Bahrain public investment agency.

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, Arab public sentiment is lagging behind.

Polls suggest that a majority of Arabs in the region do not support the recent diplomatic thaw with Israel, although there is no polling data available for Bahrain. Bahraini human rights activists in exile called Mr Bennett’s visit a betrayal of the Palestinian national movement and an endorsement of Israel’s policy towards it.

“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.”

And Mr. Bennett’s enthusiasm for the diplomatic thaw with faraway countries like Bahrain was offset by rising tensions between Israelis and Palestinians at home, where a resolution between the two seemed further away than ever.

Palestinians, Israeli settlers and police have been clashing for several days in Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem neighborhood that has been at the heart of tension that led to a war in Gaza last year.

In this context, some Palestinians said they were particularly hurt 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, a 59-year-old pensioner in Nablus, West Bank. “But at least make sure you don’t hurt our feelings.”

Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed reporting from Haifa, Israel, and Myra Noveck of Jerusalem.

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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
Newsrust - US Top News
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