|Naftali Bennett lauded a new “regional architecture of moderate countries” in the Middle East as he left Bahrain on Tuesday evening, completing the first official visit by an Israeli prime minister to the Gulf State.
- Bennett’s visit to Bahrain saw the prime minister meet with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and senior Bahraini ministers. Discussions were said to be dominated by regional issues and the threat from Iran.
- Last week, the first-ever delegation of parliamentarians from the United Arab Emirates visited the Knesset. Their visit came as Mansour Abbas, leader of the Israeli-Arab United Arab List alliance, admitted that it was a mistake for his party not to have backed the 2020 Abraham Accords.
- Improvements to Israel’s long-strained relationship with Turkey also appear to be on the cards with the confirmation this week that President Isaac Herzog will visit Ankara next month.
- Closer to home, Israel received a warm welcome from President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi at Cairo’s Egyptian Petroleum show – a major regional gas conference to which the Jewish state has previously not been invited.
- Long a source of behind-the-scenes mediation between Israel and Hamas, Egypt is also drawing attention for its very public reconstruction efforts in Gaza.
“Ring of stability”
Bennett’s overnight visit to Bahrain indicates the Gulf state is keen to catch up with the UAE, a fellow Abraham Accords signatory which has fast-developing relations with Israel. Earlier this month, Benny Gantz became the first Israeli defence minister to visit the country. He returned having signed a deal to bolster intelligence and defence cooperation between Israel and Bahrain.
- “It is clear that there is a strong desire by the leadership in Bahrain to be in a significant and multidimensional relationship with Israel,” Bennett said as he departed Bahrain. “What we’re all trying to do is form a new regional architecture of moderate countries. This architecture will provide stability, economic prosperity and be able to stand strong against the enemies who are fomenting chaos and terror. So it’s sort of a ring of stability.”
- Israeli diplomats said Bennett’s discussions with the king and crown prince were focused on “regional issues”, such as Iran. Bennett’s office said the leaders discussed “expanding strategic and security relations to address regional challenges, including nuclear threats, terrorist activity, religious extremism, poverty, and social challenges.”
- Like Israel, Bahrain considers Iran a threat to its security and is opposed to its nuclear programme.
- In an interview with the pro-government Bahraini newspaper, Alayam, Bennett delivered a tough message on Iran. “It supports terrorist organisations in your region and in ours, with one goal: to destroy moderate states and put blood-thirsty terror groups in their place. We won’t allow it. We fight Iran and its proxies every day, and we will help our friends in strengthening peace, security and stability.”
- Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa accepted an invitation by Bennett to visit Israel, Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry announced.
- “The most remarkable thing about Naftali Bennett’s short visit to Bahrain … is how normal something that was unthinkable just a few years ago now seems,” suggested Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer.
Bennett also called for a “warm peace” with Bahrain, saying he wanted to “mould more content into the Abraham Accords in trade, interpersonal relationships and in all aspects”. Addressing university students, he said Israel’s future relations with the Middle East depended on “real connections between people”. “They don’t just depend on declarations,” he added. In an earlier meeting, Bahraini ministers and Bennett discussed economic opportunities for Jewish and Muslim entrepreneurs and business owners and partnerships centred on the economy, technology and innovation, and improving transport links between Asia and Europe. The two countries also pledged to implement a 10-year bilateral plan – “The Joint Warm Peace Strategy” – which will prioritise areas of mutual interest, including innovation ecosystems, food and water security, sustainable energy, healthcare, education, and trade and investment. They also agreed to boost tourism and establish programmes, such as student exchanges, to “foster dialogue and understanding” between young people.
… and building a bridge
Bennett also met with leaders of Bahrain’s 50-strong Jewish community. It had practised its faith in private since the establishment of Israel and the destruction of the state’s only synagogue. After the signing of the Abraham Accords, however, the community re-emerged, renovating the synagogue. “I’m sure you can be a remarkable bridge between Bahrain and Israel,” Bennett told the meeting.
Going according to plan
- The first-ever delegation of Emirati parliamentarians were greeted by Knesset speaker Mickey Levy when they visited Israel last week. “Welcome to Jerusalem, the city that is sacred to all sons of Abraham. It is a great honour to host you,” Levy said.
- Levy – a close ally of foreign minister Yair Lapid – reaffirmed his support for a two-state solution. “Both sides must understand that none of us are going anywhere,” he said as he called for an alliance of moderates in the region against extremists.
- Levy’s fellow Knesset member, Mansour Abbas, told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy this week that his party had been mistaken not to vote for the Abraham Accords when they came before the Israeli parliament in 2020. Abbas said he advocated backing the agreement but had to vote against because the Joint List alliance, with which his Ra’am party was aligned at the time, had collectively agreed they would not support the accords. “It was a mistake not to vote for those agreements, and I see them positively,” Abbas said.
In the navy
Israel is to post an attache to US Navy’s Fifth Fleet headquarters, which is stationed in Bahrain, it was confirmed this week. Bennett met the head of the fleet, Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, in Manama on Tuesday. Its growing role in regional military cooperation has been made possible because Israel is now under the US CENTCOM structure. Israel will be joining a US-led 34-state alliance that works to guarantee maritime freedom in the Gulf. In November, Israel joined the US, the UAE and Bahrain in naval exercises in the Red Sea – the first time such an exercise involving Israel and the Gulf states has been publicly acknowledged.
Desperate Erdogan offers Israel olive branch
President Isaac Herzog will visit Turkey next month, Israel confirmed this week.
- The announcement came as two senior Turkish officials – Ibrahim Kalin, a senior adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Turkey’s deputy foreign minister, Sedat Onal – arrived in Jerusalem to prepare the ground for the visit – the first by an Israeli president in 15 years.
- Battered by economic crises, regional isolation and domestic difficulties at home, Erdogan has been attempting to restore ties with Israel. Relations between the two countries were once close – Turkey was the first Muslim-majority state to recognise Israel in 1949 – but have deteriorated on the watch of the authoritarian Erdogan. Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador in 2010 but, after relations were restored in 2016, withdrew its envoy again in 2018.
- Erdogan has fiercely opposed the Abraham Accords and threatened to break off relations with the UAE. The president has since reversed course, reaching out to the Gulf states, and now Israel, to help tackle Turkey’s economic crisis. Turkey is also feeling isolated: concerned about Iran, and envious of the warm relations between Israel and Turkey’s traditional regional foes, Greece and Cyprus.
- Herzog has spoken to Erdogan by phone four times since taking office last summer, most recently just over a week ago when the Turkish president tested positive for covid.
- Endorsing his visit, Bennett lavished praise on Herzog. “In my eyes, the president is doing an excellent job,” he said. “He is an extraordinary diplomatic asset for solving problems.” Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yamina party, said of former Labor leader Herzog: “We have total trust.”
- However, relations between Israel and Turkey remain tense: Erdogan has given strong support to Hamas, accused Israel of deliberately killing Palestinian children, and was rapped by the US last year for indulging in antisemitic tropes.
A thaw in the cold peace
The “cold peace” between Israel and neighbouring Egypt also appears to be warming up. In a clip widely shared on social media, Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, made a point of personally greeting Israel’s energy minister, Karine Elharrar, who uses a wheelchair, to the Egyptian Petroleum Show. “President al-Sissi, you’ve touched us all,” commented Bennett on twitter. Elharrar told the event Israel’s energy industry is “a bridge for regional ties”, noting that Israeli gas could soon be supplied indirectly to Lebanon. The move came as Egypt begins to increase its supply of aid to Gaza, joining Israel in easing restrictions on the enclave. Egypt is investing in the construction of three towns that will be home to 300,000 people, as well as assisting in the upgrade of Gaza’s main coastal road. The Egyptian projects will work with nine Palestinian companies, providing 16,000 local jobs. Egypt is also cooperating with Qatar to help pay the salaries of civil servants in Gaza. Israel recently issued 10,000 work permits, allowing Gazans to cross the border and take up jobs inside Israel.
What happens next
Bahrain is closely allied to Saudi Arabia which is yet to join the Abraham Accords. But the warming ties between Bahrain and Israel will have been approved by the Saudis and may signal another regional breakthrough is close, suggest analysts. “Given the island’s literal and political connections with Saudi Arabia, Bennett’s move will increase speculation that open, perhaps even formal, Israeli relations with Riyadh are imminent,” wrote Simon Henderson, a specialist on the Gulf states.