Bahrain and Israel have signed a joint communique to formalise ties during a visit by an Israeli and US delegation to Manama to broaden cooperation that Washington has promoted as an anti-Iran bulwark and potential economic boom.
Bahrain followed the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in agreeing last month to normalise ties with Israel in US-brokered deals, stunning Palestinians who had demanded statehood before any such regional rapprochement.
The UAE and Bahrain became the third and fourth Arab states to agree to normalise ties with Israel, following Egypt’s peace deal with Israel in 1979 and a 1994 pact with Jordan.
For the US allies, it is a chance to close ranks on Iran more overtly.
The Israeli delegation, which flew on an El Al Israel Airlines charter flight from Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, was accompanied by US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin.
“It was indeed an historic visit, to start opening relations between both countries,” Bahraini Minister for Foreign Affairs Abdullatif al-Zayani said after the signing ceremony with Israel’s Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat.
Al-Zayani touched elbows with Ben-Shabbat, who described the step as a “promising beginning” and said the Israeli delegation was accepted “with open arms, with warmth and cordiality”.
Israel and Bahrain, host to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, inked the so-called “Abraham Accords” at a White House ceremony on September 15, a document that fell short of a formal treaty.
The accord has drawn anger among Bahrainis at home and abroad. The government of Bahrain, where a Sunni Muslim minority rules a Shia majority population, has said the deal protects its interests from Iran.
Al-Zayani said engagement and cooperation were the most effective and sustainable ways of bringing about genuine and lasting peace in the region and said his country supported resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through dialogue.
Mnuchin described the accord as an important step in regional stability and “just the beginning of the work that is going forward”.
“I think the opportunity is way beyond just investments,” Mnuchin earlier told reporters on the El Al flight.
“It’s in technology, building various different businesses – and in the case of Bahrain as well, really expanding the opportunities for them quite, quite, quite dramatically.”
The ceremony also saw the signing of several memorandums of understanding. They cover trade, air services, telecommunications, finance, banking and agriculture, according to a list provided by a Bahraini official.
Houda Nounoo, a Bahraini diplomat, told reporters the Gulf state planned to formally reopen Manama’s old synagogue, which has a Jewish community of 34 people, for the Purim festival on February 25.
Ben-Shabbat, speaking in Arabic at an arrival ceremony at Manama airport, said Israel looked forward to hosting a Bahraini delegation in Israel soon.
The El Al flight flew over Saudi Arabia, an accommodation by the Gulf’s powerhouse, which has so far resisted US appeals to normalise ties with Israel.
Mnuchin and the other US officials travel on Monday to the UAE, where the accord with Israel has uncorked bilateral commerce. On Tuesday, the US dignitaries will join the UAE’s first delegation to Israel.
Israel and the UAE will sign a deal on Tuesday to allow 28 weekly commercial flights between Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Israel’s Transportation Ministry said on Sunday.
The Palestinian leadership has condemned the Gulf normalisation agreements with Israel as “a stab in the back” for Palestinian aspirations to establish an independent state of their own.
The deals mark a distinct shift in a decades-old status quo where Arab countries have tried to maintain unity against Israel over its treatment of the stateless Palestinians.
Many Arab states say they remain committed to the Arab Peace Initiative – which calls for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Palestinian territories occupied after 1967 in exchange for peace and the full normalisation of relations. But speculation has been rife that some countries in the region would soon join the bandwagon.
Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists more states in the Middle East want ties with Israel as priorities have shifted, arguing countries now value lucrative trade opportunities above the Palestinian conflict.
But key player Saudi Arabia has said it will not follow its allies Bahrain and the UAE in establishing diplomatic relations without a resolution to the Palestinian issue.