MANAMA – The most remarkable thing about Naftali Bennett’s short visit to Bahrain, the first-ever official visit by an Israeli prime minister to this small kingdom on the Persian Gulf, is how normal something that was unthinkable just a few years ago now seems.
The military guard of honor is immaculate, but there isn’t much fanfare. The security is adequate, but it’s not a major operation. The historic first visit feels perfectly normal. An Israeli leader took a short flight to an Arab country. Spent 24 hours there meeting the local leadership. Then he flew back. Almost a banal visit without any major headlines. Could it really be as simple as it sounds?
It has taken over four decades since Israel’s first peace agreement with an Arab country for its relations with some Arab countries to reach this level of normalcy. Relations with that first pioneer, Egypt, are still far from simple. Despite the rather touching sight of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi personally greeting Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar at a conference this week, most of the engagement between the two countries remains between their militaries.
The peace with Egypt – and from 1994 onward with Jordan – has remained decidedly cold. The strategic interests of the three neighbors kept the treaties intact, but as the Arab world saw on Al Jazeera and other networks the bloody images of two intifadas and three wars in Gaza, it made sense for Egypt’s president and Jordan’s king to distinguish between formal ties and “normalization.”
Even dictators and monarchs have to take public opinion into consideration, so why risk angering what was believed to be a devoutly pro-Palestinian “Arab street”? The relationship with Israel was something to be conducted behind closed doors.
Long before the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were signed in September 2020, the leaders of the Arab states in the Persian Gulf were thinking of pursuing a different approach. There had, of course, been years of discreet talks with the Israeli leadership, focused mainly on coordinating steps against the shared enemy: Iran. But the next step would be different.
The new generation of the Gulf’s Western-educated crown princes saw a relationship with Israel not only in security terms but as a business opportunity too. Civilian Israelis would be welcomed as entrepreneurs and tourists as well. But for that, they would need a more open and warmer peace.
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In the last decade, through a series of discreet surveys carried out across the region, they reached the conclusion that the levels of support for the Palestinians and antipathy toward Israel were not as clear-cut as had previously been assumed. It also took the unique circumstances of a Trump administration that heavily favored Israel over the Palestinians. However, the Emiratis and Bahrainis wouldn’t have taken the gamble on open relations with Israel if they didn’t believe they could get away with it.
And they were right. In 1979, when Egypt made peace with Israel, it was expelled from the Arab League and President Anwar Sadat was subsequently assassinated. When the Abraham Accords were signed, none of the Arab League members – with the exception of the Palestinian Authority and the suspended Syrian regime – protested. Not only did widespread protests fail to materialize, but Morocco and Sudan soon joined as well. And of the Abraham Accords’ three main godfathers – Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Zayed – only the Emirati crown prince is still in place.
There were those who worried after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, and then the forming of the Bennett-Lapid government last June, that momentum had been lost and backsliding from the accords would begin. A series of visits to the UAE, Morocco and Bahrain by the government’s top ministers in recent months has dispelled those fears.
Bennett’s visit to Manama comes just two weeks after Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited. Yair Lapid already visited last September. All had large press packs in tow. Bahrain’s tiny size (it is the smallest Arab country by population) is deceptive. Not only is it a strategic outpost on the Gulf, hosting the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. It’s also a proxy for Saudi Arabia – its massive neighbor and protector in 2011 from a Shi’ite uprising. The Bahrainis wouldn’t be hosting Israel’s leaders so openly and warmly without Riyadh’s express agreement.
It’s an endorsement from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who would dearly love to join as well – if it weren’t for his old father, King Salman, who still can’t bear the idea.
For now, open visits by Israelis to Saudi Arabia remain the holy grail of this regional realignment. But if the Saudi protectorate of Bahrain is anything to go by, it’s only a matter of time.