When Bahrain Once Welcomed Israelis

The late Yossi Sarid made the first Israeli ministerial visit to the Gulf state, proving that a different reality between Israel and the Arab world is possible - and within reach.

Yasser Arafat with Yossi Sarid, former leader of the left-wing Israeli Meretz party, Gaza April 19, 1998.
Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah

The late Yossi Sarid was one of the most active, committed Israeli politicians to promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Yet his rich career in public service brings to mind one unique event that emphasizes the potential of regional cooperation, and the linkage between such cooperation and progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Sarid was the first Israeli minister to officially visit a Gulf state. In October 1994, as Minister for the Environment in Yitzhak Rabin’s government, Sarid arrived in Bahrain to partake in regional discussions on environmental issues. He also met with Bahrain’s foreign minister. The trip was part of the multilateral peace process that was launched following the Madrid conference in 1991.

Upon returning to Israel, Sarid commented on his trip from atop the Knesset podium:

“My visit to Bahrain was used first and foremost to open a direct line of communication between Israel and Bahrain, so we can achieve mutual understanding and work together and ultimately establish relations between our two countries. During my visit, I met with the Bahraini foreign minister and with its health minister, who is responsible for environmental matters in his country.

"The Bahraini foreign minister asked me to convey a message of peace to the Israeli people, his determination and desire to see the peace process succeed, and to establish economic cooperation with Israel. He viewed the meeting between the working groups on environmental issues and my visit there as the first in a number of stages which would lead to closer relations between the two countries”.

Gadi Baltiansky, who at the time was an assistant to the deputy foreign minister and in charge of media and took part in the visit recalls: “I accompanied Sarid to the meeting with the Bahraini foreign minister. Our host expressed great interest in internal Israeli matters (including the differences between the Labor party and Meretz), spoke positively about potential regional cooperation, welcomed the Israeli delegation, and generally conducted the meeting in a pleasant and friendly manner. He had only two reservations. First, he unequivocally opposed media coverage of our meeting and did not want it made public. Second, he emphasized that Israel and the Palestinians must progress down a bilateral track, not just a multilateral one. In all our interactions with our hosts, the desire for future cooperation was clear, if made possible by future circumstances.”

The visit to Bahrain also contained cultural-historical elements, shining a light on Bahrain’s ties to Judaism. Ilan Baruch, who was the director of the department for multilateral negotiation coordination at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time, recalled: “We were taken to Bahrain’s national museum. It was a fascinating visit. It included a viewing of the ancient coins that were found in the country, which was a global trading hub in ancient times and the middle ages. Among the coins was one with Hebrew writing from Tiberius, I believe from the 1st century BCE.”

Baltiansky added that the delegation also visited the ancient Jewish cemetery in the capital Manama: “The hosts continuously stressed how they are safeguarding the site, how important their relations with the Jews were, and how much appreciation – not hate – they felt for the Jews.”

In the annals of 1990s’ Israeli diplomacy one can find additional examples of historical visits to Arab capitals, as well as unique meetings between Israeli and Arab leaders, religious figures, civil society activists, business people and more. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process opened new regional horizons for Israel, as Sarid’s visit to Bahrain shows. It proved that a different reality between Israel and the Arab world is possible and within reach.

The idea of regional cooperation is garnering new support of late in the Israeli public discourse. Politicians from both sides of the divide are openly speaking favorably of the development of ties with the Arab world, and even the public is convinced that this is a realistic possibility. The Mitvim Institute annual poll (October 2015) showed that 59% of the public believes that such cooperation is possible while only 36% believe the opposite.

And yet, precisely because of that it is important to bear in mind Sarid’s visit to Bahrain. Regional cooperation does not have to be narrowed purely to common security interests, important as they may be. Rather it can be based on varied civilian interests as well, and be led by ministers, diplomats and experts, and not primarily by defense establishment officials, as is the case today.

In order for this to happen and to deviate from the limited, secret and security-dominated current ties between Israel and its Arab neighbors, it is vital to make progress in the peace process with the Palestinians. The current stalemate and escalation in the security situation severely limit the opportunities for cooperation between Israel and its neighbors and endanger the progress that has already been made in this area.

The claims as if the Arab world does not connect between developing ties between Israel and progress in the peace process are inaccurate. The Arab Peace Initiative, which has been reaffirmed time and again by the Arab League, is a good example of this, as is the recent crisis between Jordan and Israel that was born out of the latest wave of violence in Jerusalem. The ability to realize the regional vision that was at the foundation of Sarid’s visit to Bahrain goes through a breakthrough with the Palestinians.

The 1990s have indeed come and gone, but it is useful at times to look back and recall the many diplomatic accomplishments and breakthroughs between Israel and its neighbors; to hear stories and lessons from the statesmen that took part in them, and to use them as part of an effort to create a new vision for relations between Israel and the Arab worlds in an era of peace.

Dr. Nimrod Goren is the Head of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a lecturer on Middle Eastern studies at The Hebrew University.