The participation of an Israeli delegation in the 2018 annual UNESCO International Conference held in Bahrain corresponds with the various headlines on Israeli-Bahraini relations during the past year. In May 2018, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed tweeted that Israel has the right to defend itself due to Iran’s violation of the status-quo in the region. This unprecedented reaction made by an Arab country broke the habit of overlooking or condemning the Israeli attacks in Syria. Despite its importance, the statement has not been officially published by Bahrain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Choosing to use the channel of social media over the official media brings a personal dimension to the statement and creates a safe diplomatic distance from deterministic declarations regarding the status of Israel. This kind of cautiousness is a customary practice of Arab leaders in their public references to Israel.
Nevertheless, the Foreign Minister’s statement did not stand out in an empty void. In May 2018, an official Bahraini delegation participated in the Giro D’Italia bicycle race, which was held in Israel, and last December an interfaith group of from Bahrain arrived in Israel to promote a dialogue for coexistence and religious tolerance. But, of the events and declarations betweenIsrael and Bahrain in the past year, perhaps the most important was the declaration made by the King of Bahrain in September 2017 at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa condemned the Arab boycott of Israel and announced that Bahraini citizens are now allowed to visit Israel.
In the background of the latest visit of the Israeli delegation to the UNESCO conference, the Israeli media rushed to publish a quote from a “senior Bahraini official” who claimed that “the kingdom will be the first of the Gulf states to establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel”. With this announcement, it appeared that the Israeli excitement over the warming of ties between the two countries had reached a new peak. However, this enthusiasm, like many others in the past, reflects to a great extent more of a wishful thinking than an actual rapprochement. In that case, the foreign minister of Bahrain hastened to shatter the illusion of normalization by issuing an official declaration of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that categorically denied the senior official’s claim.
In light of developments described in the relations between the two countries recently, the question asked is why Bahrain took a step back to the traditional position of the Gulf states reasserting its “commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative.” The key issue for understanding that dualist attitude lies in the level of openness on the one hand, and the sensitivity on the other, which characterizes the relations between Israel and Bahrain, and to a large extent, Israel’s relations with other Arab countries. Bahrain’s unique openness towards Israel stems from a combination of security interests, as well as political and social-religious issues.
First, both Bahrain and Israel are against Iran’s armament in nuclear weapons and supported Trump’s pulling out from the nuclear deal. Following the civil protests that broke out in Bahrain during the Arab Spring (2011), Iran criticized the legitimacy of the Sunni regime in Bahrain and supported the political struggle of the Shiite population in the country. As a small country with about two-thirds of its population being Shiite, Bahrain feels threatened by Iran and could use any ally in its diplomatic efforts against Iran’s nuclearization and a strong coalition in a scenario of military confrontation. The location of the US’ Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain is not coincidental in this context, nor is the recent hesitant rapprochement with Israel.
Beyond the political and security implications of such converging interests, the shared interests and allegedly common enemy had led in general to a less hostile dialog between the countries in the formal channels, as well as between citizens over the social media platforms. Although difficult to measure, the general atmosphere rising from these exchanges seems to shift from the automatically anti-Israel approach to a more focused criticism in the context of the Palestinian issue, despite the diverse circumstances of events. One of the interesting manifestations of that was in the various comments to the Bahraini foreign minister’s tweet about Israel’s right to defend itself. Along with many sympathetic responses, there were also some negative reactions, but most of them called for advocating the same rights for the Palestinian people and did not reflect the usual narrative of delegitimizing Israel.
Second, Bahrain’s interest in promoting interfaith cooperation can also be associated with its growing openness towards Israel. This track has shaped a unique relationship between the two countries. As a regime that is being criticized for representing the minority Sunni community in Bahrain, the king seeks to advance a pluralistic policy to meet with the needs of the various sectarian and religious groups living in the country. Among them is a small Jewish community of about 100 people that emigrated to the region from Baghdad at the beginning of the 20th century. The partnership between the political and religious leadership of Bahrain with the Jewish Wiesenthal Center led to a natural linkage with Israel; however, its importance is manifested in the moderate, tolerant, and multicultural message that the regime wishes to express internally – addressing the various communities at home.
Thirdly, Bahrain is known for its self-confident, active political mentality relative to its regional power. Bahrain was the first country in the Gulf to host an Israeli minister (Yossi Sarid in 1994) and the first country in the region to declare Hezbollah’s military and political arms terrorist organizations. Bahrain regularly appeals to NATO against organizations affiliated with the Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Bahrain represents a moderate pro-Western line that promotes women’s rights and rights for the many expatriates living in the country. Thus, Bahrain is a convenient ally for Israel, both politically and morally. However, Bahrain also has a political responsibility to maintain the fundamentals of the regional policies under which it operates, particularly those of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and therefore it will not rush to establish official diplomatic relations with Israel before the greater powers of the GCC, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates do so.
Carmel Shama-Hacohen, Israel’s ambassador to the OECD and UNESCO, who was supposed to head the Israeli delegation at the conference in Bahrain, said in a radio interview that he would not attend the conference for political and security considerations. These reasons are also indicative of the great sensitivity in these relations as well as the great distance that Israel faces from achieving normalization with the Arab states, even with the moderate and less hostile ones. Eventually, Israel was represented by Deputy Israeli Ambassador to UNESCO and another Israeli diplomat on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The delegation’s participation is an example of a move that can be interpreted as a rapprochement between the two countries, but the far-reaching announcements voiced in the Israeli media hinder the small and measured steps being taken in this direction. In fact, not only did the report cause uneasiness among the Bahraini government, it also threatened the continued cautious rapprochement between the two countries.
Moran Zaga is a Policy Fellow at the Mitvim Institute and a Research Fellow at the Ezri Center for Persian Gulf Studies, Haifa University.