Is Israel on the verge of normalizing ties with the Persian Gulf?

Diplomatic Affairs: Not yet the toast of Manama

US-led conference in Bahrain (photo credit: HERB KEINON)
US-led conference in Bahrain
(photo credit: HERB KEINON)
MANAMA, Bahrain – The most illuminating moment for me during the two-day “Peace to Prosperity” workshop here came, oddly enough, during a seven-minute phone interview back to Israel with a haredi media platform called Hadashot Hascoopim.
Earlier in the day I had posted a short video that went viral of about 10 men at the synagogue in Manama – including White House chief mediator Jason Greenblatt – wearing their tallitot and tefillin and, hand in hand, dancing around the bimah after morning services singing “Am Yisrael Hai” (The People of Israel Lives).
The interviewer began the segment by asking for a description of the “services that took place this morning in Bahrain, in an ancient synagogue, with unbridled joy and the singing of ‘Am Yisrael Hai,’ joined by the Chabad emissary and Jason Greenblatt, the haredi Jew who is Trump’s Mideast envoy.”
And while the moment was indeed moving and unusual – it was the first morning minyan in memory held in the small synagogue – some perspective is needed.
First of all, the Bahraini synagogue is not “ancient.” It was built just over 100 years ago to serve the small Jewish community in the kingdom, mostly immigrants from Iraq. Secondly, the singing of “Am Yisrael Hai” there, though poignant, was not exactly done with unbridled joy. Happy, yes; unbridled joy? That’s an exaggeration. And, finally, it is questionable whether Greenblatt would agree with his being characterized as a haredi Jew.
What is telling here is how the interviewer opted to portray the event, to play it up. Earlier in the day, in an interview with Army Radio, the minyan and the dance were also highlighted, though the presenter was more accurate in his description.
Why is this significant? Because it shows how we want things to be.
Israelis, so long isolated and shunned in the region, desperately and understandably want to be accepted here. As a result, sometimes the smallest crumbs thrown in our direction are magnified to appear as if they are a multilayered wedding cake.
THIS WEEK’S “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in Bahrain was significant, no doubt, though the true significance will be measured only down the road. It was important because it was the first rollout of Washington’s attempt to create a new paradigm for peacemaking.
No more would the United States give the rejectionist Palestinian Authority veto power over its efforts. The PA boycotted the conference, so the administration just shrugged and said, “So what? We will hold it anyway and invite some of the biggest financial guns in the Middle East to take part.”
No more would the paradigm of economic assistance to the Palestinians be along the model of charity: donors pouring billions of dollars onto a client with his hands out. The plan’s $50 billion project is based on investments, not handouts.
This reflects the mind-set of the businessmen turned diplomats – headed by Jared Kushner – driving the program. It also explains why the conference would go ahead without official PA participation. If you want to invest in the West Bank through the private sector, you don’t necessarily need the government.
“Paradigm” was one word that was heard over and over at the conference here. It was heard from speakers on the center stage during plenary sessions, and it was heard in the hallways where delegates from around the world mingled amid tables laden with colorful pastries and silver urns full of rich coffee.
It was a word used repeatedly by Kushner and by others in his entourage. Paradigm. Or, more accurately, changing paradigms, paradigm shifts.
One paradigm shift was to move the world community from supporting the Palestinians through charity, to investing in the West Bank and Gaza instead. And the second paradigm shift mentioned was in the Arab world’s changing attitudes toward Israel. In that context, the Bahrain government’s granting of visas to eight journalists from six Israeli media outlets was also seen as a significant part of what was taking place in Manama.
But here, too, some perspective is needed. Israeli journalists walking around Manama’s soil has happened before; this is not Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. It happened – in 1994 at a conference following the Oslo I Accord.
Secondly, Israelis are not an unknown quantity in Manama.
At the Ali Baba Cave Antiques & Carpets store in the souk, the merchant behind the counter said it is not infrequent for Israelis to shop for painted Persian brass vases and Turkish teacups in his shop.
“They are here because Israel has good ties with Saudi Arabia,” he offered. It is an open secret that Israeli businessmen have been discreetly coming here and doing business for years.
So not only is the arrival of Israeli journalists in the country not unprecedented, the presence here of Israeli businessmen is not unheard of. The gestures this week must therefore be seen as yet another of the baby steps being taken toward reaching a more normal state of relations between Israel and the Arab world.
These public steps go back to a visit by an interdenominational Bahrain delegation to Jerusalem in December 2017, continued with Saudi Arabia allowing Air India to fly over its airspace to and from Israel, and extended through Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s publicized visit to Oman last December and the playing of “Hatikvah” when an Israeli judoka won an event in an international competition in the United Arab Emirates.
Bahrain inviting Israeli journalists to cover this event is another point along this line, as was the Bahraini government’s approval to open the synagogue for prayer, and the interview that Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled Bin Ahmed al-Khalifa gave to three of the news outlets on hand where he acknowledged that Israel is an established fact in the region.
As nice as it is to hear the Bahrain foreign minister acknowledge us, this – too – must be put in perspective, and even his saying these words to Israeli journalists does not put us suddenly on the eve of normalizing ties with the Persian Gulf.
The finance ministers from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates at the conference spoke of economic development in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and neighboring countries at the conference, not about normalizing ties with Israel. And they all paid the necessary lip service to the Palestinian cause.
The Bahraini foreign minister in his interviews talked about Israel as an established fact, something that exists, and that its people want peace. While it is significant that he uttered those words, they have been said by other Gulf leaders in the past – though not to Israeli journalists – and should not be conflated to the equivalent of Anwar Sadat landing in Jerusalem.
Context is needed, and the context is that a lot has changed since 2002 when the Saudis put forward their Arab Peace Initiative, which would normalize ties with Israel if Israel did everything the Arab world asked: withdraw completely to the 1967 lines, including on the Golan Heights, and find a fair accommodation for the refugees, generally interpreted as allowing a symbolic number into Israel and paying reparations for the resettlement of the other refugees and their descendants in the countries where they now reside.
In other words, the Arab world would accept Israel, if Israel gave in to all its demands. Israel, understandably, did not grasp the offer with both hands.
Khalifa, in his interview with Channel 13, bewailed this.
“I am concerned about the Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for a two-state solution,” he said. “This has been accepted worldwide. If you look at the history of the dispute, there were a lot of mistakes. The Palestinians missed Camp David in 2000, but the Israelis missed the Arab Peace Initiative. We didn’t even hear a hint of a positive welcome of the Arab Peace Initiative from the Israeli government.”
Much has occurred in the intervening 17 years. The Middle East is still in the throes of the cataclysmic Arab Spring, and Iran has cast a long, dark shadow over the region.
There are new tensions in the Gulf, and as a result the Gulf countries are looking toward the US, and – to a much, much lesser degree – to Israel for assistance.
In 2002 the Gulf countries felt far less threatened by Iran, their economies could still rely on oil as its nonstop engine, and there was not a burning need to strengthen relations and ties with the US, both the administration and Congress.
That is not the case now. Today there is a palpable fear of Iran and the possibility of a war erupting at any time. Making America happy is important, and making America happy was the driving force behind this conference in Manama.
It is why the Bahrainis hosted the conference in the first place, it is why Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar all sent high-level representatives to take part – despite the anger this caused the Palestinians.
And it is also why the Bahrainis made gestures to Israel, such as allowing in journalists and enabling prayer services in the city’s synagogue. These are all points along the long line toward a normalization of ties, but that line is very long, and despite some of the breathless narration this week, we are still very much at the beginning.