Bennett meets with Jewish community during Israeli PM’s first-ever visit to Bahrain
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Bahrain’s Jewish community on Tuesday after arriving for the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to the Gulf country, 17 months after defying decades of tension to normalize relations.
Bennett was greeted by Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani at Manama airport, decorated with the flags of both countries, on Monday evening. He will meet King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman, who is also prime minister, on Tuesday.
Bennett’s visit is the latest such move after the US-brokered 2020 Abraham Accords, which went against the long-standing Arab consensus that ruled out ties with Israel in the absence of a solution. to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I am very happy to be here in Bahrain, and I couldn’t think of a better way to kick off this visit than to see my family here,” he said during a meeting with members of the Jewish community, according to his office.
Israeli Ambassador to Bahrain Eitan Naeh, Jewish Community President Ebrahim Nonoo, member of the Jewish community and former Bahraini Ambassador to the United States Houda Nonoo were also present.
In September, Ebrahim Nonoo led prayer services at the renovated Manama synagogue, highlighting Jewish traditions after decades of private worship.
“We are very happy to be out in the open,” Nonoo told AFP at the time.
Bahrain’s small Jewish community of around 50 has practiced its faith behind closed doors since 1947, when the Gulf country’s only synagogue was destroyed during unrest at the start of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But when Bahrain normalized relations with Israel, it opened everything up, with the tiny synagogue in the heart of the capital renovated at a cost of $159,000.
Bahrain and its close ally the United Arab Emirates became only the third and fourth Arab states – after Egypt and Jordan – to establish ties with Israel when they signed the pacts brokered under US President Donald Trump. Bennett visited the United Arab Emirates in December.
“In these tumultuous times, it is important that from this region we send a message of goodwill, cooperation and solidarity in the face of common challenges,” Bennett said before his departure.
The trip follows a visit to Manama by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz earlier this month, which saw the two countries sign a defense agreement.
This agreement covered intelligence, procurement and joint training, with Gantz boasting that it had further cemented the budding diplomatic relationship.
“Absolutely” about Iran
The visit also comes at a time of regional tensions over Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran is engaged in negotiations with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia directly and with the United States indirectly to revive the agreement officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The deal offered sanctions relief to Tehran in return for curbs on its nuclear program. The United States unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 under Trump. The rescue campaign resumed at the end of November.
Bennett’s government strongly opposes a return to the 2015 deal, repeatedly warning that lifting sanctions on Iran would give it more money to buy weapons to use against Israelis.
Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said Bennett’s trip was “absolutely” about Iran.
“In light of the talks in Vienna, this is a show of strength, a symbol that countries are working together,” he said.
Dore Gold, head of the Jerusalem Public Affairs Center, said Israel and Bahrain have been pushed towards closer ties because both are “threatened by Iranian actions”.
He pointed to unrest in Bahrain blamed on Iran-backed opposition groups and the range of threats Israel says Iran poses, including its arming of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
As part of their defense agreements, Israel is set to post a naval official in Bahrain, which hosts a base for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Guzansky said that in several respects Bahrain was seen as progressing more slowly than the United Arab Emirates in terms of consolidating ties with Israel.
He said allowing an Israeli military officer to be based in Bahrain was “meaningful”, noting however that Bahrain “does not want to be seen as an Israeli base in the Gulf”.