Years in the making: Bahrain and Israel establish relations

In the last few years, Bahrain’s former foreign minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa tweeted his support for Israel’s military operation to expose and destroy Hezbollah’s cross-border tunnels.

U.S. President Donald President Trump speaks after it was announced Bahrain has joined the United Arab Emirates in striking an agreement to normalize relations with Israel during a brief appearance in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 11, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)
U.S. President Donald President Trump speaks after it was announced Bahrain has joined the United Arab Emirates in striking an agreement to normalize relations with Israel during a brief appearance in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 11, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)
I’ve enjoyed a close relationship with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain for more than a decade and I am honored to have been the first rabbi in the royal palace when he invited me back in 2011. In our various conversations as well as through the actions of his government, he has consistently shown his support for Israel. He was the first of the Gulf leaders to speak out against Iran and its terrorist ways.
Over the years, we have discussed relations with Israel and I’ve heard him talk repeatedly about his overriding interest and genuine desire to see the establishment of relations between his kingdom and Israel. He has always seen diplomatic relations as a win-win for both sides. On Friday, that dream became a reality.
His message has been echoed by others in his government as well. In the last few years, Bahrain’s former foreign minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa tweeted his support for Israel’s military operation to expose and destroy Hezbollah’s cross-border tunnels into Israel.
He tweeted (in Arabic), “Is the digging of tunnels by the organization [Hezbollah] not an open threat to the stability of Lebanon? Who bears responsibility when the neighboring countries take upon themselves the task of getting rid of the danger that threatens them?”
Just a few weeks later he tweeted his support for Australia’s formal recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, tweeting, “Australia’s position does not hamper the legitimate demands of the Palestinians and first and foremost East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital,” he continued, “It also does not contradict the Arab Peace Initiative.” No Gulf leader has expressed a public desire to establish relations with Israel more than King Hamad and his government.
Here are some important dates that led up to Friday’s announcement:
2013 – 2015
  • King Hamad led the effort for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to legislate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Following his success in doing so, he told me during a meeting in his palace in Manama in 2016 that “our only hope for a strong moderate Arab voice is a strong Israel.”
2017
  • After US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, King Hamad sent an interfaith mission from Bahrain to Israel. He was the first to do so from any Gulf state.

2018
  • Following his majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s invitation that I bring a delegation from The Hampton Synagogue to visit the Kingdom, in February, we flew to the Kingdom and met with government officials and the leadership of the Jewish community. We met with former ambassador of Bahrain to the United States Huda Nonoo, parliament member Nancy Khedouri and community leader Michael Yadgar who shared with us the country’s rich history supporting its Jewish community (the only indigenous Jewish community in the Gulf). We visited the synagogue in Manama – the first in the Gulf – and the Jewish cemetery.
  • In November, Israel’s Economic Minister Eli Cohen was invited by the Bahrain government to participate in a conference on modern technology in Manama.

2019

  • In April, a delegation from Israel’s Foreign Ministry was invited to participate in a conference on entrepreneurship in Manama.
  • In June, Bahrain hosted the White House’s Peace to Prosperity Workshop and while that was exciting on its own, perhaps more exciting was the fact that the Bahrain government welcomed seven Israeli journalists for the first time to the Kingdom. The Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, Channel 13, KAN, Israel Hayom and others were given access to participate and cover the conference.
  • I recall sitting with Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa during the conference and asking him if he would consider giving an interview to one of the Israeli journalists who I had just met with. He immediately said he would and that I should bring him over. During that historic interview, he shared: “Israel is part of the heritage of this whole region, historically. So, the Jewish people have a place amongst us.” That same year, Sheikh Khalifa applauded Israel for cleaning out the tunnels in the North, and he also tweeted his support for Australia for recognizing west Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel.
  • In July, Bahrain’s former Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa (he was the FM at the time) met with Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Israel Katz in Washington DC.
  • In October, Israeli Foreign Ministry Counterterrorism Director Dana Benvenisti visited Bahrain for a security conference on Iran.
All of these moments led up to Friday’s monumental announcement and it is exciting and gratifying both as a nation and for me personally. We’re seeing a shift in the Gulf that myself and others have been working toward for more than a decade and I predict that a third – either Oman or Qatar – will be next. Mazel Tov and Mabrouk to all and I’m looking forward to more Jewish tourists and businesspeople visiting Bahrain, a state that has become like a second home to me.
Rabbi Marc Schneier is the founder and president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and an advisor to many Gulf leaders.