Israel's judicial instability is causing challenges in the Gulf

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Bahrain, which recently established warm ties with Israel, is already showing concern over Israel's stability because of the judicial reform and the thawing Saudi-Iran relations

 THE OPENING ceremony at Stand-Up Nation Central’s Connect2Innovate conference in Manama, Bahrain, this week.  (photo credit: Bahrain Ministry of Industry and Commerce)
THE OPENING ceremony at Stand-Up Nation Central’s Connect2Innovate conference in Manama, Bahrain, this week.
(photo credit: Bahrain Ministry of Industry and Commerce)

MANAMA – In the ballroom on the 45th floor of the Wyndham Grand Hotel here, where floor-to-ceiling windows afford a stunning view of the city’s ultramodern skyline, a man who identified himself as a law professor and former Bahraini judge approached two Israeli guests with a warm “Salaam alaikum.”

After some perfunctory small talk while milling around at the opening reception of Start-Up Nation Central’s “Connect2Innovate” conference bringing together Israeli and Bahraini businesspeople, innovators and government officials, the conversation quickly veered to the situation in Israel: the judicial overhaul plan and the massive demonstrations against it.

The former Bahraini judge, who praised the demonstrators for taking to the streets week after week, bewailed the proposal to give the governing coalition the final say in appointing judges.

Judges “must not have anything in the back of their minds except the law,” he said.

What made this conversation extraordinary was that here was a former judge in Bahrain preaching to Israel about what is best for the courts.

 BAHRAIN’S FOREIGN Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani and then-foreign minister Yair Lapid meet at The Negev Summit, also attended by the US, UAE, Morocco and Egypt, last year. It’s likely the UAE and Bahrain received the OK from Riyadh to sign the Abraham Accords, says the writer.  (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS) BAHRAIN’S FOREIGN Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani and then-foreign minister Yair Lapid meet at The Negev Summit, also attended by the US, UAE, Morocco and Egypt, last year. It’s likely the UAE and Bahrain received the OK from Riyadh to sign the Abraham Accords, says the writer. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Why is the judge's bewailment extraordinary?

Because in Bahrain, according to Freedom House’s 2022 Report, the king “appoints all judges and heads the Supreme Judicial Council, which administers the courts and proposes judicial nominees. The courts are subject to government pressure in practice. The country’s judicial system is seen as corrupt and biased in favor of the royal families and its allies, particularly in politically sensitive cases.”

None of that, however, prevented this former judge from pontificating to Israel about judicial better practices. Ah, the irony.

TO HEAR Avi Hasson, the CEO of Start-Up Nation, speak of his meetings with Bahraini businesspeople and government officials, this judge’s comments were an anomaly. “We have not heard anything about the subject. People coming together here have the agenda of working together, and what we’ve heard from both the government and businesses is a desire to do more.”

He was noncommittal, however, about whether he was worried about the impact the reform and its fallout could have.

“For the time being, we haven’t seen any impact in the region, but obviously it is not something which is positive,” he said.

One source in Bahrain said that it is not as if Israel’s system of government or the independence of its judiciary is in the forefront of the minds of Bahrain government officials and businesspeople interested in doing business with Israeli companies.

“There is not a lot of dealing with the details about this,” the source said. “That is not the problem. The problem is that they are not quite sure how much the government is in control of events, and how stable it is.”

Bahrain and other Gulf and Muslim countries, the source added, are not concerned about the health of Israel’s democracy – it’s not as if Turkey is looking at the developments in Israel with concern about what it means for the country’s commitment to civil rights.

“What concerns them,” he said, “is what looks like loss of control and weakness. Because, remember, they always looked at [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu as someone strong and in firm control of his party and the government. The minute that it looks as if he is losing control and things are not stable, that concerns them.”

The source said that Netanyahu was, and remains, popular in the Gulf. “They appreciated his leadership, his vision, his charisma,” he said, adding that his strong position against Iran also won him supporters.

Asked whether the current crisis is denting this perception, the source said he could not tell, though he added that people he speaks to in the Gulf continue to say they would vote for Netanyahu if given the chance. He recalled a conversation he had with one tribal leader in the UAE who said that there are 45,000 people in his tribe, and – if they could – they would all vote for Netanyahu.

Doron Brenmiller, the chief business officer of Brenmiller Energy, which uses rocks to store and then release thermal energy, said the political mess in Israel “is not helping business.”

“We are a publicly traded company in Tel Aviv and on NASDAQ, and it is not helping stock prices – and these are things that are easy to measure,” he said. “Nobody likes things that are unstable, and it doesn’t even matter who is right or wrong.”

For example, Brenmiller said that at this conference “I was hoping to maybe see people from Saudi Arabia. If things were moving faster, getting warmer, it would be easier. Once things begin to shake a little bit in Israel, it affects the rhythm and maybe their desire to come to Israel.”

These types of visits are often key in developing and cementing business relationships, and Brenmiller said “we always invite people to come, see and visit, but we heard from the ambassador to Bahrain that people right now are concerned about coming.”

IT IS not only the brouhaha over the judicial reform that is creating a more challenging business environment; the uptick in violence with the Palestinians is also taking a toll.

Brenmiller said he encountered sensitivity to the issue on a business trip to the UAE last year even before the current round of violence.

“Over dinner, when the conversation turns to the Palestinian issue, you see that for some it is a sensitive issue,” he said. “So some issues we don’t have to talk about. Talking about innovation is a safe place to stay, especially during first meetings.”

While Brenmiller may be able to skirt the issue in private conversations, others are unable to do so. The source in Bahrain said the Palestinian issue is more of a challenge to Israel’s ties with the Gulf than the instability caused by the judicial overhaul.

“When [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich talks about erasing Huwara, you can imagine that the Bahraini finance minister, or any members of the royal family, will not want to meet him in Israel. There is damage.”

Israel’s envoy to Bahrain, Eitan Na’eh, was asked at a press briefing what impact the current violence will have on bilateral ties.

“It’s hard to measure,” he said, “but one of the measures is this conference. The Bahrainis could have said that it is not the right time for it, or that the minister of industry and trade was too busy to attend. But they didn’t do that; they made the effort. I know what I see. I don’t know what will happen, but so far I am more – not less – busy; so far I see more Israelis here, more delegations coming, and am asked to set up more meetings.”

ANOTHER POSSIBLE drag on Israel’s ties with the Gulf countries in general and Bahrain, in particular, is the apparent warming of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

This week, Na’eh said, the Bahraini press was full of reports of the Iranians interested in reestablishing ties with Bahrain as well. What was telling about those reports, he pointed out, was that they were based on comments made by Iranian – not Bahraini – officials. He also said that it is not even clear whether the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement will fully materialize.

He pointed out that the Saudis and Iranians have a long history that has seen innumerable peaks and valleys. Though he understands Israel’s interest in the matter, people should not jump to conclusions that this will somehow dampen ties between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, or put the kibosh on efforts to expand the Abraham Accords to other countries, first and foremost Saudi Arabia.

This assessment was echoed by the source in Bahrain, who said that Israelis have a tendency to look at everything that happens and think that it has to do with them. He dismissed the notion that either Netanyahu or former prime ministers Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett are somehow responsible for the warming of ties between Tehran and Riyadh because they “fell asleep at the wheel.” Not everything has to do with Israel, he noted.

The source also said that it is not a given that improved Saudi-Iranian ties mean that Israel will no longer be welcome in the Gulf.

“The Iranian threat is not the only reason Israel is in the Gulf,” he said.” It is also a reason, but not the only one. There are many other reasons – financial and technological – and it is important to remember that.”

In the same vein, he said that Israel’s strategic relationship with the US – although it is something the Gulf countries watch carefully and want to use for their advantage – is one aspect of Israel’s attractiveness to the Gulf, but not necessarily the most important one.

As a result, he said that even though the Biden administration is giving Netanyahu a noticeable cold shoulder by not inviting him to Washington, this, too, will not hurt Israel’s ties with Bahrain or the UAE.

The UAE and Bahrain’s relations with Israel are not only seen as a means to an end, be it as an important ally against Iran or as a useful way to get closer to and gain favor with the US.

These countries, he said, also look at relations with Israel as an “absolute value,” he said, “Israel as Israel. We are still a military power, still an economic power. Israel’s value-added exists on its own. Not everyone looks at it through the prism of America and Iran.”