Israeli’s Valentine’s Visit to Bahrain Part of Saudi Courtship?

Since the 2020 signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain, Riyadh has routinely eased restrictions against the Jewish state.

The Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is welcome by the Bahraini foreign minister, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, at the Manama International Airport, February 14, 2022. AP/Ilan Ben Zion

Beyond being a historic first, Prime Minister Bennett’s Bahrain visit today may well signal that the Abraham Accords’ ultimate goal — a formal Israeli peace deal with Bahrain’s patron, Saudi Arabia — is within reach.  

Mr. Bennett was received in Manama by the Bahraini foreign minister, Abdullatif al Zayani. A ceremonial military guard and a red carpet completed the scene. The Israeli guest then conferred with King Hamad Al Khalifa and other top officials. 

His message, Mr. Bennett said, was “of good will, of cooperation, of standing together against common challenges.”

That last bit was certainly an allusion to Bahrain’s neighbor, Iran. As Washington negotiates to refill Tehran’s empty coffers with cash by reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran’s Yemen proxy, the Houthis, attack Gulf states. No wonder countries like Bahrain seek Israeli defense technology for their security. 

The Valentine’s Day visit followed one two weeks ago by the Israeli defense minister, Benny Gantz, who signed a security agreement with Bahrain. 

During a regional conference in Cairo, meanwhile, President al-Sisi made a point today of going across a room filled with Arab dignitaries to greet the Israeli energy minister, Karin Elharar, who is wheelchair-bound. A video of the public display of respect became a meme on Israeli social media. 

Israeli athletes are now routinely embraced by Arab competitors. Last July, during a Judo competition, Israeli Judoka Raz Hershko defeated Saudi Tahani Alqahtani. Afterward, the two women held hands and raised them in the air. Arab athletes have been known to forfeit matches rather than compete against Israelis. Some still do, which made the Saudi display of affection stand out. 

Since the 2020 signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain, Riyadh has routinely eased restrictions against the Jewish state, including most significantly by rescinding a ban on Israeli flights over Saudi airspace. Earlier this month an American-led 60-country naval exercise in the region included Israeli and Saudi naval forces sailing side by side. 

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia is yet to join the Abraham Accords, treaties signed under the auspices of an America effort led by President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Morocco and Sudan have publicly tightened relations with Israel since then, and other deals are quietly negotiated. Yet, the Saudis are slow to formalize relations.  

Would Bahrain, though, have been the first to sign the accords unless it received a green light from Riyadh to do so?

A decade ago, as the region experienced the spate of rebellion dubbed “the Arab Spring,” Saudi tanks roared across the causeway into Bahrain to crush a rebellion there. Ever since, Iran has continuously attempted to use Bahrain’s Shiite majority to foment further unrest there. Largely due to Saudi presence, though, the Bahraini kingdom remains stable. Manama also relies heavily on Saudi oil revenues to balance its budget.

While it conducts its own foreign policy, Bahrain is therefore widely seen in the region as a satellite of Riyadh. Mr. Kushner formed a close friendship with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and visited Riyadh several times before the deal with Bahrain and the UAE was finalized. 

Widely known as MbS, the Saudi crown prince is conducting a major reform plan in the kingdom. His “Vision 2030” is a blueprint for steering the economy away from its heavy reliance on oil. He has eased some of the most excessive Islamist restrictions on society — including, symbolically, changing the law to allow women to drive cars and hold more jobs. 

These reforms pitch MbS against some of the Kingdom’s old guard. Conservatives and Islamists use his most egregious missteps against him. They especially highlight, at home and abroad, his failure to conclude the Yemen war and the gory assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. 

While MbS, as the most powerful player in the Kingdom, may seek a peace deal with Jerusalem, his Riyadh foes cling to a traditional anti-Israel stance. Those foes include the aging King Salman, who publicly opposes any deal with with Israel prior to the formation of a Palestinian Arab state. 

“Israeli-Saudi ties are likely influenced by the process of transferring power from father to son,” says the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. The crown prince, he says, is likely more resolute than the king in his determination to set Saudi Arabia on a new course. 

By inviting Mr. Bennett, Bahrain may well have signaled that its Riyadh patrons are taking further steps on that new road. 

Twitter @bennyavni

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