Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (R) speaks to British Prime Minister Theresa May (L) during the first Gulf Cooporative Council's (GCC) " GCC British Summit", in Sakhir Palace Bahrain, December 7, 2016..
(photo credit: HAMAD I MOHAMMED / REUTERS)
Doomsayers warned that US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as capital of the State of Israel would be a setback for relations with Arab nations in the region.
Their argument goes something like this: Because Jerusalem is seen as a holy city to Islam, and because the Jewish state is viewed as an interloper on Muslim land, official American recognition of Israel’s connection to the city would anger the Arab and Muslim world. Even autocratic rulers of countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, who want to cooperate with Israel in confronting Iran and Islamic State, are unable to ignore the opinion on the street, which is decidedly pro-Palestinian and antagonistic toward Israel.
Yet this week, after Trump’s historic speech, a 24-member delegation from Bahrain arrived in Israel. The visitors were an interfaith delegation affiliated with the NGO “This is Bahrain.” About half the group is native Bahraini while the other half is comprised of expatriates who became Bahraini citizens.
The visit seemed to indicate that the diplomatic freeze forecast by pessimists might not materialize, or at least not in so serious a fashion as expected.
Admittedly, the delegation did not represent the Kingdom of Bahrain or any official state body. Bahrain does not have official diplomatic ties with Israel. But the fact that high-profile citizens of Bahrain decided to visit Israel despite Trump’s declaration is an encouraging sign.
The importance of the visit should not be exaggerated. Bahrain is a tiny country of around 1.4 million citizens. It has its own reasons for wanting to show the US that it maintains good relations with Jews – including the tiny Jewish community within Bahrain – and with the Jewish state. They want to show that they are moderate and pragmatic, when in reality, the ruling Sunni minority regularly oppresses members of the Shi’ite majority. This was on display in 2011, when “Arab Spring” activists were violently oppressed.
In July, Bahraini security forces arrested humanrights activist Ebtisam al-Saegh after she tweeted that the king was responsible for abuses against women by the National Security Agency.
As noted by The Jerusalem Post’
s Arab Affairs correspondent, Bahrain’s leaders have an interest in projecting a more positive image of their country to gain the favor of the US and other Western countries.
At the same time, Bahrain’s foreign policy cannot be divorced from Saudi Arabia’s. The tiny Gulf state would never dare initiate closer relations with Israel without first coordinating with the Saudis. So when Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, at a gala event of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles in September, denounced the Arab boycott of Israel and said he would allow his subjects to visit Israel freely, it was likely done with Saudi Arabia’s permission, based on a changed stance toward Israel. It could also be a way for the Saudis to test the waters of normalization with Israel before committing themselves to such a policy.
Historically, Arab nations made normalization of relations with Israel conditional upon solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And many believe this remains true. What might have changed is the willingness on the part of Arab nations to support Palestinians’ demands unconditionally. Perhaps for the first time, there will be an attempt on the part of countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to pressure the Palestinian leadership to make the concessions necessary for peace to be feasible.
Iran’s aggression in the Middle East has made many Arab nations in the region realize it is unfair to continue demonizing Israel, a country that has never sought to promote an expansionist policy. There is an increasing realization among Arab leaders that the real threat to Arab hegemony is Iran, not the Jewish state. If anything, Israel can be the region’s most effective ally in combating Iranian aggression and fighting Islamic State, particular in Lebanon and southern Syria.
The Bahraini delegation to Israel is yet another sign of a gradual but undeniable change in Arab perspectives on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump’s declaration won’t stop the advance of this changing Arab perspective.