Israeli leader, Naftali Bennett, Meets Bahrain Counterpart, Signaling Regional Shift

Israeli leader, Naftali Bennett, Meets Bahrain Counterpart, Signaling Regional Shift

MANAMA, Bahrain — Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of Israel met Tuesday in Bahrain with his Bahraini counterpart, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, part of a warm welcome that provided the latest evidence of the rapid and recent realignment of Middle Eastern politics.

Mr. Bennett was scheduled to meet later in the afternoon with the prince’s father, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the head of state in Bahrain, a tiny but strategically located Gulf state.

Before meeting the royal family, Mr. Bennett met with members of Bahrain’s small Jewish community. Mr. Bennett gave them a shofar, the Jewish musical horn.

“I’m very delighted to be here in Bahrain, and I could think of no better way to kick off this visit than seeing my family here in Bahrain,” he said. “All of you are indeed family. I come from Israel with good will, with warm friendship between the two peoples, and I’m sure you can be a remarkable bridge between Bahrain and Israel.”

The trip to Bahrain by Mr. Bennett, the first official visit by an Israeli prime minister to the country, showcased the growing strength of ties between Israel and several Arab governments over the last 18 months.

Since 2020, Israel has established formal diplomatic relations for the first time with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, re-established relations with Morocco, and improved them with Sudan.

For years, the vast majority of the Arab world refused to normalize relations with Israel as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained unresolved.

Mr. Bennett arrived in Bahrain on Monday night, descending from his plane to a red carpet lined by a guard of honor, a greeting that highlights how priorities have changed for some countries in the region.

For Bahrain, the containment of Iran and its armed proxies throughout the region — a goal shared with Israel — is now of greater importance than Palestinian sovereignty, particularly as Iran accelerates its nuclear enrichment.

Bahrain, which is also an ally of the United States and hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, will for the first time host an Israeli military officer as part of a regional alliance, an Israeli official confirmed Tuesday. The goal is to ensure freedom of navigation and international trade in the Persian Gulf, following several attacks by Iran and its proxies on ships in the area.

Bahrain’s invitation to Mr. 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 by normalizing ties with Israel. The kingdom has also denied that the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, hosted a secret summit meeting in 2020 with Mr. Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was still in office at the time.

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 the Bahraini economy in 2018 — and analysts say that Bahrain, as a Saudi proxy, does little without its agreement.

“Bahrain is always looking up to Saudi Arabia as their big brother that always stands by them in times of difficulties,” 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 other Gulf States.

Leading Saudis have also made statements about Israel and the Palestinians that would have been unthinkable until only recently. In 2018, Prince Mohammed made headlines by asserting that Israelis had a right to their own land. Two years later, another Saudi prince, Bandar bin Sultan, criticized the Palestinian leadership as failing ordinary Palestinians.

Saudi movie theaters are currently showing a feature film, “Death on the Nile,” that stars an Israeli actress, Gal Gadot, who is unpopular in the Arab world for her public support of Israeli military action in Gaza.

Ties are also warming between Israel and the two Arab countries with which it had previously forged an uneasy peace, Egypt and Jordan.

President Abdul Fatah al-Sisi of Egypt drew notice in Israel on Monday when he made a show of publicly greeting a visiting Israeli government minister, Karine Elharrar, in front of hundreds of other Arab dignitaries.

But if bonds between governments are strengthening, the sentiment among the general public in Israel and the Arab world is lagging.

Polling suggests a majority of Arabs do not support the recent diplomatic thaw in Israel. In Bahrain, where dissent is carefully contained, photos and videos posted to social media on Tuesday showed small groups of demonstrators protesting against the Bahraini government and Israel.

International rights watchdogs say Bahrain has no free news media and that its judges are appointed by the royal family. The Khalifa family is a Sunni Muslim dynasty that has ruled Bahrain since 1783, presiding over a mainly Shia citizenry, whose members say they suffer systemic sectarian discrimination.

Exiled Bahraini rights activists noted that Mr. Bennett’s visit fell on the 11th anniversary of the 2011 uprising, and they called it a betrayal of the Palestinian national movement and an endorsement of Israel’s policies toward 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 important date in Bahrain’s recent history, when Bahrainis stood up against an autocracy — and 11 years later they have invited the head of an apartheid state.”

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