Bahrain may be first to make gestures

Crown prince has called for engagement with Israel; officials welcome effort, doubt it will affect Arab world.

bahrain Shaikh Salman 248.88 (photo credit: )
bahrain Shaikh Salman 248.88
(photo credit: )
US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who is expected in Israel next week, is also expected to give a speech in Bahrain, which is emerging as a leading candidate to make some kind of gesture toward Israel to move the diplomatic process forward. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley - who last week characterized a Washington Post op-ed piece by Bahrain Crown Prince Shaikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa calling for more engagement with Israel a "very, very welcome step" - said on Monday that Mitchell would be delivering a speech in the small Gulf island-state during his regional tour. Israeli officials said that while any gesture or step from Bahrain would obviously be welcomed, the country did not have a leading role in the Arab world, and it was unlikely it would lead the way for other countries - such as Saudi Arabia - to take steps toward normalization with Israel. "Gestures by Bahrain would be nice, but don't necessarily mean anything," one official said. "The question is what influence they would have on any other country, and the answer is none. Obviously it is better than nothing, but moves by Bahrain won't change anything in Arab public opinion or Arab politics." US government sources have said in recent weeks that US President Barack Obama's pressure on Israel to stop settlement construction has been accompanied by equal pressure on the Arab world to make some gestures of normalization toward the Jewish state at the beginning, and not the end, of the diplomatic process. Obama's overtures to Saudi Arabia have, however, fallen on deaf ears so far, and a personal letter to Morocco's King Muhammad VI earlier this year to "be a leader in bridging gaps between Israel and the Arab world" has not had any visible effect. Bahrain, a pro-Western country with Sunni rulers and a Shi'ite majority, is a close American ally and hosts the US Navy's 5th Fleet. Last year Bahrain's king appointed a Jewish woman as his kingdom's envoy to Washington. The Jewish community in Bahrain dates back to antiquity, houses the only synagogue in the Persian Gulf, and today numbers between 30 and 50 people. In the Washington Post op-ed on Friday, the Bahraini crown prince wrote that the Arab world had "not done enough to communicate directly with the people of Israel. 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." Essentially, he wrote, the Arab world has not done a good enough job demonstrating to Israelis how the Arab Peace initiative launched by Saudi Arabia in 2002 "can form part of a peace between equals in a troubled land holy to three great faiths. Others have been less reticent, recognizing that our success would threaten their vested interest in keeping Palestinians and Israelis at each other's throats. They want victims to stay victims so they can be manipulated as proxies in a wider game for power. The rest of us - the overwhelming majority - have the opposite interest." Khalifa said both sides "must stop the small-minded waiting game in which each side refuses to budge until the other side makes the first move. We've got to be bigger than that. All sides need to take simultaneous, good-faith action if peace is to have a chance."