Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, Bahrain's Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, Oman's Deputy Prime Minister Fahad bin Mahmood, Emir of Kuwait Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani pose for a family photo..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A 25-member Bahraini delegation is on a visit to Jerusalem in a small but significant move towards normalizing relations between Israel and the tiny Gulf monarchy.
Although the group does not include any governmental officials, its arrival on Saturday for a five-day visit makes good on a pledge by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to allow his citizens to travel freely to Israel, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is hosting the group. Cooper and Wiesenthal Center dean Marvin Hier met the king in Manama in February and during that session he voiced opposition to boycotting Israel and stressed that his subjects would be free to visit, according to the rabbis.
“This is not a government-to-government thing but it is inspired by his statement,” Cooper said. “He gave a clear signal and here they are.”
The visitors are an interfaith delegation affiliated with the NGO This is Bahrain, said the delegation’s leader Betsy Mathieson. About half the group is native Bahraini while the other half is comprised of expatriates who became Bahraini citizens.
“We’re not here to interact with governments or politicians. We’re here to talk about peace and coexistence,” she said.
But the visit is angering Palestinians, coming at a time of tremendous tension sparked by US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. “Our visit has been planned for many months. We can’t let our message of peaceful coexistence be derailed by anything happening in the political world,” Mathieson said.
In a sense, the trip is a follow-up to a visit by the king’s son, Nasser Bin Hamad al-Khalifa, to the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles in September to unveil the king’s “Declaration of Worldwide Religious Tolerance.” The declaration upholds support for full freedom of religious choice and stresses that governments should protect minorities. It also calls for ensuring that religion “serves as a blessing for all mankind and a foundation of peace in the world.” At that event, the Bahraini national orchestra played the Israeli national anthem.
A spokesman for the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy said at the time that the king is displaying warmth towards Jews and projecting himself as a statesman of religious tolerance in order to cover over human rights abuses and persecution against members of the Shi’ite majority.
The group visiting Israel includes Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, Christians, the leader of a Hindu temple and a Sikh, said Mathieson. “This is a true representative community of Bahrain,” she said.
“We don’t need government endorsement, we are traveling under our own steam,” Mathieson said. “Our message is peaceful coexistence.” She said that different religions in Bahrain “were able to live in harmony for hundreds of years and we want to share this with the world.”
“We’re here to speak about our religious freedom and to say that we have total safety,” Mathieson, who was born in Scotland, said. She said she had entered on her British passport but others in the group entered on Bahraini passports.
“We’re overwhelmed with the love and kindness shown to us,” she said.
Cooper said it was significant that the group had come despite the controversy over Trump’s decision. “We are extremely buoyed and will push for other delegations to come as soon as possible. Hopefully, this will lead to more good things.”
But PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi took issue with the visit. “To come at this time when Trump has provoked everyone and given the Arab world a big slap in the face, to come in the name of inclusiveness and tolerance to Jerusalem in which Palestinians who don’t have Jerusalem IDs, have no access to Jerusalem or the holy sites or their institutions or families, to do that now is unbelievable. It’s the height of insensitivity.”