Bahrain and Israel: Quo Vadis?

The Qatar crisis needs to be resolved in order for the US and Israel to be able to fully capitalize on the emerging Arab-Israel peace dividend.

By SIGURD NEUBAUER
May 10, 2018 23:33
Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa

Bahrain's Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa speaks during a news conference in Manama, Bahrain, August 29, 2016. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Hours after US President Donald Trump announced Washington’s decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), long-simmering tensions between Israel and Iran over Syria erupted into outright hostilities Wednesday overnight.

Amid these tensions, Bahrain’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, announced on Twitter on Thursday, “As long as Iran continues the current status quo of its forces and rockets operating in the region, any country — including Israel — has the right to defend itself by eliminating the source of danger.” Only days before his tweet, bicyclist teams sponsored by Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) participated in the opening legs of the Giro d’Italia cycling race in Israel.

What is less known, however, is that over the past decade Bahrain has consistently called for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. It all began in 2009 when Bahrain’s Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, published an op-ed in The Washington Post, arguing, “We need fresh thinking if the Arab Peace Initiative is to have the impact it deserves on the crisis that needlessly impoverishes Palestinians and endangers Israel's security.” Recognizing the entrenched narratives on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide, which has been fueled by decades of hostilities and mutual suspicion, the Prince acknowledged in his op-ed, “An Israeli might be forgiven for thinking that every Muslim voice is raised in hatred, because that is usually the only one he hears. Just as an Arab might be forgiven for thinking every Israeli wants the destruction of every Palestinian.”

Bahrain’s conciliatory rhetoric was not limited to the Prince’s eye-browsing op-ed, but the Kingdom also appointed a Jewish woman, Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, as its ambassador to Washington where she served from 2008-2013. As an aspiring analyst at the time, I had the privilege of meeting Nonoo in Washington and later on her family in the Bahraini capital of Manama while attending a security conference – the Manama Dialogue - in December 2010.

During my visit to the Kingdom, I was afforded the opportunity to interview the foreign minister, who echoed the Prince’s conciliatory remarks by calling on the Arab states to engage with Israel. He emphasized that "only through communications can normalization be reached.” The senior diplomat stressed the need for dialogue with the Jewish state while underscoring that the 2003 Arab initiative remains available as an "invitation for peace," as opposed to a "take it or leave it" ultimatum. "We want peace. There is no question on whether Israel has a right to exist, we are serious. Period."

While Bahrain continues to play a leadership role by publicly engaging the Jewish state – as demonstrated by the foreign minister’s recent tweet – Manama’s position vis-à-vis Israel is anchored in the Arab Peace Initiative, which was presented in 2002 by then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. (Abdullah served as Saudi Arabia’s king from 2005-2015).

Under the Saudi initiative, all members of the Arab League would recognize Israel provided that the Jewish state withdrew from all territories occupied since June 1967. The plan also called for the implementation of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, reaffirmed by the Madrid Conference of 1991. According to the land for peace principle, and Israel’s acceptance of an independent Palestinian State, with East Jerusalem as its capital, full normalization will be granted by all Arab states in the context of a comprehensive peace with Israel. But as I have argued in a separate op-ed for The Jerusalem Post in January of this year, Trump’s Middle East peace plan is expected to be released “soon,” perhaps even shortly after the US embassy has been moved to Jerusalem.

Even though no details pertaining to Trump’s peace plan have been released, the US President has formed his own “Arab coalition” — comprised of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Jordan — all of which appear committed to at least tacitly supporting his peace plan. Within this context, Bahrain – which remains closely aligned with Saudi Arabia – is therefore well positioned to publicly telegraph Arab messaging towards the Jewish state while the groundwork for Trump’s peace plan is being prepared in Washington.

Towards that end and in reference to escalating tensions between Israel and Iran, Bahrain’s ambassador to Washington, Sheikh Abdullah bin Rashed bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, told me on Thursday: “No country would tolerate aggression of any kind. As Iran chooses to carry acts of aggression against others, nations retain the right to take considerable calculated measures to protect their national security interests, and that includes Israel. The right to self-defense is inherent.”

Regarding Tehran’s threat to the wider Middle East and to the Gulf in particular, the ambassador said, “The Iranian regime can no longer be allowed to continue its business as usual by persistently attempting to undermine the regional security structure and seek its ultimate aspiration as a perpetual exporter of the revolution.”

Gulf Unity

Despite the positive momentum to isolate Tehran regionally by bringing Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) monarchies closer in form of advancing Trump’s peace plan for Israel/Palestine, stability in the Persian Gulf remains precarious. As I argued in a separate op-ed for The Jerusalem Post last month, the Qatar crisis and the public relations war against Doha in Washington has brought the Gulf to the brink of abyss as the blockade imposed on Qatar – where the largest US overseas military base is located – is impacting US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is also well understood in Washington policy circles that a unified GCC is required in order to apply the necessary pressure on Tehran to modify its malign regional behavior.  Towards that end, the Qatar crisis needs to be resolved in order for the US and Israel to be able to fully capitalize on the emerging Arab-Israel peace dividend whose strategic objective focuses on isolating Tehran regionally.

Without stability in the Gulf, Arab-Israeli relations will merely be tactical as the lack of trust between the GCC Sheikhdoms will inevitably prevent them from advancing the Palestinian cause in order to make peace with Israel. It should be remembered that the glue that links Israel and the GCC is Palestine. Without an equitable solution for the Palestinian people – as the Arab consensus remains staunchly opposed to Zionism despite Arab/Israeli misgivings about Iran and its regional aspirations – Arab-Israeli relations cannot flourish and will likely remain limited to elite level engagements.

Sigurd Neubauer is a Middle East analyst and columnist based in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @SigiMideast.


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