MANAMA – Israel's foreign minister hailed "true cooperation" in a "warm and hopeful" meeting with Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in Manama on Thursday, the highest-level official Israeli visit to the Gulf state since the countries established ties last year.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and the king discussed security, including Iran, and economic issues. It is considered unusual for the Bahraini king to meet with foreign officials at the ministerial level.
During his visit, Lapid also inaugurated Israel's Embassy in Manama.
Lapid was received at the airport by Foreign Minister, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, who visited Israel last November. A diplomatic source said the Bahraini reception and the series of high-profile meetings in Manama attest to the kingdom's wish to make its ties with Israel public.
In their diplomatic discussions, Zayani and Lapid discussed cooperation between the two countries and how they can turn their peace agreement into an active economic, security, civil and policy partnership.
In a joint press conference, Zayani – who promised to visit Tel Aviv – reiterated Bahrain's support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, saying it "expresses the rights and aspirations of all sides" and calling on "all parties to work for that aim."
Lapid said he supports the two-state solution, calling it "the right thing." However, he stressed that he was "speaking as a party leader, and not as a spokesman for the government."
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"Not everyone in [the Israeli] government think so," he added. "Unfortunately, for now, that can't be changed."
The Israeli minister also met with Bahrain's crown prince and prime minister, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa. Lapid thanked him for taking another step together towards building their relations on a model of partnership and coexistence between cultures and religions, as he put it.
Lapid arrived in Bahrain on a charter flight with an Israir plane that had the word “Peace” painted on it. The flags of Israel and Bahrain were waving from the cockpit windows.
A plane of Bahrain’s state-owned Gulf Air was parked near the Israeli plane, which immediately took off for Israel and inaugurated the civil aviation route between the two countries.
At Ben-Gurion International Airport in Israel, Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll inaugurated the direct air route between the two countries, "We'll continue to make history," he said. "With a full heart and a wanting spirit, I turn to every country in the region: Join us in the peace agreement."
The new route will allow citizens of both countries to work together and develop scientific, cultural and economic cooperation, Roll said, adding that it would boost trade, tourism and understanding between the nations' peoples.
Earlier this month, Bahrain announced that it would be easing the conditions for Israelis who wish to obtain visas, which could increase the number of business people and tourists visiting the country in the near future.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed in a video meeting marking the first anniversary of the Abraham Accords that Israel and Bahrain have recognized vaccine passports from the other country, so that vaccinated visitors from both states are exempt from quarantine when entering the other country.
Bahrain and Gulf neighbor United Arab Emirates normalized relations with Israel in a U.S.-brokered deal known as the Abraham Accords that built on shared business interests and worries about Iran.
Iran, Bahrain’s neighbor on the other side of the Gulf, is considered to be the most important threat to the kingdom’s future – a fear shared by Israel. The ruler of Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, announced in 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, that an attempted coup that was prevented, which seems to have originated in the Iranian regime.
The Bahraini Undersecretary for Political Affairs, Sheikh Abdulla bin Ahmed bin Abdulla Al Khalifa, publicly criticized Iran harshly during his visit to Israel in August. “Speaking from a Bahraini perspective and the experience of my country with Iran, is continuous interference in domestic affairs in my country,” he said. “If you look into the crises across the Middle East, you will find one red thread that would go across all those crises, you would find an Iranian finger.”
Officially, along with the opening of the new embassy, Lapid’s visit is meant to strengthen the economic ties between the two countries – and during the day a number of cooperative agreements will be signed in a number of areas.
Reuters contributed to this report.