The September 15 signing of the peace agreement between Israel and Bahrain lifts the veil off two decades of clandestine ties.
Bahrain is a small island in the Persian Gulf with a population of some 1.5 million, half of them foreign nationals. Some 70% are Shi’ites, but the ruling al-Khalifa family, led since 1999 by Sheikh Hamed Bin Issa al-Khalifa, is Sunni. Bahrain’s location between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia has had a significant impact on its defense and foreign policy. The 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought Khomeini to power in Iran posed a renewed threat to the ruling Sunni minority in Bahrain, which was quick to respond by bolstering its alliance with the US and Saudi Arabia.
The 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait prompted Bahrain’s rulers to sign a defense treaty with the US and to host the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet. In 2006, the two countries signed a free trade agreement, and more than 200 American firms currently operate on the small island. In 2011, the Saudis intervened to save the regime from the threat of the Arab Spring, which generated a lingering sense of anxiety in the small kingdom.
Bahrain did not recognize Israel nor forge any clandestine ties with it until the 1990s, as far as is known. The ties developed gradually. In October 1994, following the Madrid Conference, Israel’s environmental affairs minister, Yossi Sarid, participated in a session of the multilateral working group on water and the environment, held in Manama, Bahrain’s capital. He met there with Bahrain’s foreign minister, marking the first known direct contact between the two states. Bahrain avoided sending an official representative to the Rabin funeral in 1995, nor did it host an Israeli trade mission in the 1990s, unlike Oman and Qatar.
Bilateral relations, both open and secret, picked up pace after the turn of the millennium, mostly due to the Sunni elite’s concerns over the ambitions of neighboring Iran. WikiLeaks documents reveal that King Hamed told the US ambassador he had instructed his minister of information to cease using the words “enemy” or “Zionist entity” in referring to Israel.
He also admitted that Bahrain was conducting security and intelligence ties with Israel through the Mossad. At a certain August 2005 meeting, the foreign minister conceded that Bahrain had “quiet business” ties with Israel. Israel’s chief representative in Bahrain (and the Gulf) was actually a Foreign Ministry official who traveled extensively throughout the Gulf states and forged ties with their political leaders. Some called “the roving ambassador” of Israel in the Gulf.
Shimon Peres also met secretly with the Bahraini elite, including with King Hamed in 2009 in New York. Bahrain appears to have had a warm spot for Peres, as reflected in the comments of the Bahraini foreign minister on his Twitter account upon the death of the former foreign minister and president in 2016, and the dispatch of an official representative to his funeral in Israel.
IN 2007, Foreign Ministry director-general Ron Prosor visited Bahrain in secret, following which foreign minister Tzipi Livni met with her Bahraini counterpart on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Bahrain’s secret “courting” of Israel continued, with the Foreign minister meeting Livni at the 2017 Munich Security Conference and asking her to convey a message to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the king was interested in establishing ties with Israel.
Bahrain’s rulers have openly advanced interfaith dialogue, and a small Jewish community numbering some 1,500 people enjoys a comfortable and tolerant existence. A member of the community, Huda Ezra Nunu, for example, was elected to Bahrain’s parliament, and subsequently served as ambassador to the US. What’s more, at a 2017 event held by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, King Hamed denounced the Arab boycott and affirmed that his country’s citizens could visit Israel freely.
The center has been conducting ties with Bahrain for years, and even helped fund the refurbishment of the ancient synagogue in the kingdom. Contacts peaked with the December 2017 visit to Israel of an official Bahraini delegation of 25 representatives of different faiths. Bahrain also maintains close ties with Rabbi Marc Schneier, who has founded an organization for Jewish-Muslim reconciliation and has helped the king establish the Global Center for Peaceful Co-Existence in Manama.
Bahrain’s hosting of the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in June 2019 at the behest of the White House provided a first public look at US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, and was yet another step in exposing the relationship with Israel. Taking advantage of the media presence covering the event, the foreign minister told Israeli journalists, “Israel is a state in the region… and we want peace with it.”
Given the fact that most Bahrainis are Shi’ites, the ruling Sunni minority’s decision to make peace with Israel is a daring act, but also one of self-confidence, probably facilitated by US and Saudi support.
Bahrain is not a Middle Eastern power, and not even a Gulf power. However, the peace agreement holds three important advantages for Israel. The first stems from Bahrain’s close ties with the Saudis, who have clearly given their blessing and provided an additional sign of indirect normalization with Israel.
The second is the continuation of the momentum launched by the United Arab Emirates. And finally, it strengthens Israel’s hold in the Persian Gulf, face-to-face with Iran. In fact, just as Iran’s allies (Syria and Hezbollah) are perched on Israel’s borders, Israel is now near Iran’s borders – in the UAE, in Bahrain and in Azerbaijan, too. The final word has presumably yet to be said in this regional chess game.
**The article was published on The Jerusalem Post, 23 September 2020.