Israel and Bahrain Sign Joint Declaration – but Not Yet a Peace Deal

Protest in the Shi’ite-majority, Sunni-ruled kingdom delays official ties akin to what was seen with UAE

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Israel's chief of National Security Council Meir Ben-Shabbat delivers a statement upon his arrival at the Bahraini International Airport on October 18, 2020.
Israel's chief of National Security Council Meir Ben-Shabbat delivers a statement upon his arrival at the Bahraini International Airport on October 18, 2020.Credit: Mazen Mahdi / AFP
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

An Israeli delegation led by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and Foreign Ministry director general Alon Ushpiz flew to Bahrain on Sunday where they signed a joint communique on establishing diplomatic relations with the Bahraini government.

The Israeli delegation was joined by a U.S. delegation led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the White House envoy to the peace process, Avi Berkowitz.

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During this brief visit to Manama, Bahrain’s capital, the delegations aim to advance diplomatic ties between Israel and Bahrain, in furtherance of the joint statement of intent on the matter signed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani at the White House in September. 

Following Sunday morning’s welcoming ceremony, delegation members divided into working groups with the aim of signing a second, more detailed, declaration on establishing diplomatic relations and peace. It is not anticipated that the declaration to be signed will be a full-blown peace agreement like the one Israel signed with the United Arab Emirates last month, in part due to fierce opposition in Bahrain to the normalization of relations with Israel.

That said, the declaration is expected to include general declarations about mutual non-belligerence, the advancement of common values and areas where the eventual signing of civilian cooperation agreements is expected, including aviation, trade, energy, science and health.

Upon landing in Bahrain, Mnuchin said that the agreement between Israel and Bahrain will prove to have a far greater influence on the Middle East than the peace accord Israel signed with Egypt in 1973.
He added that the United States is working on brokering more peace accords, and said he believes there would be more updates on the matter. “We are optimistic that such peace will bring security and stability to the region.” 

Mnuchin’s remarks echoed those made by him earlier on Sunday on the flight from Tel Aviv to Manama, in response to a question from journalist Barak Ravid (Axios) about what a Trump win in the upcoming U.S. election would mean for the future of Israel and Gulf states. Mnuchin praised the U.S. team, including Jared Kushner and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and said that they are “working on other deals, hopefully there will be other announcements. Our expectation is obviously that Trump wins and this continues ... there’s a lot more in the works.”

Credit: Barak Ravid

When asked by Ravid whether a Biden win would bring an end to the path to peace, Mnuchin said, “I hope that whoever wins – is president of the United States will continue in that strategy.” 

Speaking at the special welcoming ceremony for the Israeli officials at the airport, Bahraini Foreign Minister Al Zayani said: “Today we start implementing the peace declaration which we signed in Washington. This approach is the most efficient one to achieve peace in the Middle East.”

Al Zayani extended thanks to the Israeli government, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, “for recognizing this unique opportunity to take the Middle East forward,” and to the U.S. Administration under the leadership of U.S. President Donald Trump for “effectively and actively” engaging with all parties. He also extended his deep appreciation to Bahraini King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, for his “unflinching commitment to peace, dialogue, and cooperation,” which has brought a “realistic alternative to the decades of division and conflict that have plagued the region.”

Netanyahu, who did not attend the talks in Bahrain, spoke by telephone with Al Zayani and Mnuchin ahead of the signing of the deal. He welcomed the step and also applauded the first flight from Israel to land in Bahrain on Sunday. “This is a continuation of the breakthrough for peace,” he said.

Earlier on Sunday, at the Israeli cabinet meeting from Jerusalem, Netanyahu called the talks “an impressive step forward.” Netanyahu added that it marks “Another breakthrough in our relationship with the Arab world thanks to the new and different policies that we are leading. It is not so new, because we have been leading it for 25 years, but it is bearing fruit today – peace for peace, economy for economy.” He ended his remarks by saying “I hope we can tell you about more countries soon.”

For more than 20 years Israel and Bahrain have had informal ties, which have become stronger over the past decade, spurred by growing unease in the Persian Gulf over Iranian aggression.

In late 2018, there were reports that Israel was working toward the establishment of diplomatic relations with Bahrain. A year later, when asked at the conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw when Manama would establish official ties with Israel, Bahrain’s then-Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said it would happen “eventually.”

Bahraini, Israeli and U.S. flags are seen on El Al's airliner carrying Israeli and U.S. delegations as it lands in Bahrain, October 18, 2020.
Bahraini, Israeli and U.S. flags are seen on El Al's airliner carrying Israeli and U.S. delegations as it lands in Bahrain, October 18, 2020.Credit: Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters

Bahrain has a small, well-established Jewish community, and a few of its members – including the country’s former ambassador to the United States, Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo – have served in senior government positions.

In September, after it was announced that Israel and the UAE were establishing diplomatic relations, the White House announced that a similar agreement would be signed with Bahrain.

But the document signed with Bahrain later that month was only a general statement of intent and not the full peace agreement that was signed with the UAE. Israeli officials said at the time that the parties didn’t have sufficient time to draw up a full accord before the signing ceremony.

Israeli officials say the popular opposition that erupted in the kingdom, in which a Shi’ite Muslim majority is ruled by a Sunni minority, is behind the deceleration of the process. Soon after the agreement was announced, #Bahrainis against normalization became the most popular hashtag on Twitter in that Persian Gulf country.

Israeli Foreign Ministry officials call the agreements a “joint declaration on establishing diplomatic relations and peace,” as opposed to the “Declaration of Peace” that was signed in September. An Israeli diplomat said that even though these documents do not have the same legal force as an official peace agreement – and for that reason will not be submitted to the United Nations, as the accord with the UAE was – “it will be a de facto peace treaty in every way, and after it is signed full diplomatic relations will obtain between the states.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony in Washington, September 15, 2020.
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, UAE FM Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony, Washington, September 15, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

The official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity, said it is not yet known whether an official peace treaty will follow.

A delegation from the UAE is scheduled to arrive in Israel Tuesday to continue work on implementing the peace treaty between the countries, most importantly the mutual opening of embassies.

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