Israel’s foreign minister has arrived in Bahrain for the highest-level official Israeli visit to the Gulf state since the countries established ties last year.
An Israeli foreign ministry statement said Yair Lapid, who had been invited by his Bahraini counterpart, will inaugurate the Israeli embassy in Manama on Thursday and is “expected to sign a list of bilateral agreements”.
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“This will be the first official visit by an Israeli minister to (Bahrain),” the statement said.
The Israeli foreign minister touched down at Manama airport over an hour before a Gulf Air A320 took off in the opposite direction for the first commercial flight between the two countries.
Crew members waved the flags of Bahrain and Israel from cockpit windows of the passenger jet when it landed later at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv.
The Bahrain flight and Israel’s first bilateral ministerial visit to the Gulf country are part of a thaw in regional relations after the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Sudan also agreed last year to establish ties with Israel under agreements known as the Abraham Accords.
“We’ve landed in Bahrain. I’m proud to represent Israel in an official and historic first in the kingdom. Thanks for the warm reception,” Lapid said on Twitter.
Lapid met later with his Bahraini counterpart Abdullatif al-Zayani.
“We talked about the cooperation between our countries and about taking the official peace between us and turning it into an active, economic, security, political and civic friendship,” he tweeted.
Following negotiations spearheaded by former US President Donald Trump, the United Arab Emirates, followed quickly by Bahrain and Morocco, last year became the first Arab states in decades to normalise relations with Israel.
The deals enraged the Palestinians, who felt a betrayal of their national cause. They saw it as an abandonment of a longstanding commitment in the Arab world not to normalise relations with Israel until there was progress in resolving the decades-long occupation of Palestinian land.
Israel had earlier reached peace treaties with neighbouring Egypt and Jordan.
Protesters burned tyres on the outskirts of Manama early Thursday, sending clouds of black smoke into the air, and the hashtag #BahrainRejectsZionists in Arabic was circulating on social media.
Extra security was stationed on the route to the airport and no Israeli flags were visible on main roads. Opposition activists have called for further protests later on Thursday.
“The visit of the Israeli FM to Bahrain is an act firmly rejected, condemned and denounced by the people of Bahrain,” Sheikh Hussein al-Daih, deputy secretary-general of the opposition Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, told AFP on Wednesday.
Memorandums of understanding on technology and the economy will be signed during Lapid’s visit, along with agreements involving Israel’s national water company and Sheba hospital, Israeli officials said.
Since the normalisation agreements, known as the Abraham Accords, were signed, ties have expanded between Israel and its new Gulf partners, notably including direct flights and economic deals.
Lapid is the main architect of the Israeli coalition government that removed ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu, who signed the Abraham Accords.
Lapid has also visited the UAE and Morocco since becoming foreign minister in June.
The Israeli delegation to Bahrain arrived in earlier this week and joined the country’s tiny Jewish community in marking the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah.
Lior Haiat, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said it was the first time in over 75 years that the community could mark the holiday in its synagogue.
“The fact that we could celebrate it yesterday was a very joyful event for us and for the community as well,” he said.
On the first anniversary of the accords this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged to continue the efforts of the Trump government.
“This administration will continue to build on the successful efforts of the last administration to keep normalisation marching forward,” Blinken said.
“We will encourage more countries to follow the lead of the Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. We want to widen the circle of peaceful diplomacy.”
Beyond economics, the rapprochement was also driven by mutual concern over Iran, with the regional rivalry even pushing Saudi Arabia into quietly building relations with the Jewish state.