Originally published in
By Michael Crowley and David M. Halbfinger
Sept. 11, 2020
The island kingdom in the Persian Gulf becomes the second Arab nation in a month to more openly embrace Israel, dismissing Palestinian objections.
WASHINGTON — President Trump announced on Friday that Bahrain would establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, following the United Arab Emirates, in another sign of shifting Middle East dynamics that are bringing Arab nations closer to Israel.
Mr. Trump announced the news on Twitter, releasing a joint statement with Bahrain and Israel and calling the move “a historic breakthrough to further peace in the Middle East.” Speaking to reporters, the president said the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was a fitting day for the announcement.
“There’s no more powerful response to the hatred that spawned 9/11,” he said.
The announcement came after a similar one last month by Israel and the United Arab Emirates that they would normalize relations, on the condition that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel not follow through with plans to annex portions of the West Bank. Trump administration officials said they hoped that agreement would encourage other Arab countries with historically hostile — though recently thawing — relations with Israel to take similar steps.
The deal, which isolates the Palestinians, comes as Mr. Trump tries to position himself as a peacemaker before the elections in November.
Bahrain’s move was not unexpected: The tiny Persian Gulf kingdom was widely seen as the low-hanging fruit to be picked if all went well in the aftermath of the Emiratis’ announcement, analysts said. Bahrain, strategically important as the home port for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, had already opened its airspace to new commercial passenger flights between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the region last month in an effort to close the deal.
It was unclear whether the United States or Israel had made any concessions to Bahrain in exchange for the agreement. When asked during a briefing for reporters, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, who helped to broker the deal, did not respond directly.
Israel would always welcome the addition of another Arab country to the short list of those with diplomatic ties, but in Jerusalem the announcement landed with neither the surprise nor the weight of the Emirati decision.
“Any Arab country is very important, for sure,” said Amos Gilead, a retired Israeli major general who leads the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “It’s another precedent. But with all due respect, when you are small, you are small.”
But Bahrain has outsize significance, said Kirsten Fontenrose, a former National Security Council senior director for Gulf affairs in the Trump White House who is now a director at the Atlantic Council. She noted that Bahrain was a close ally of Saudi Arabia, the true diplomatic prize for Israel.
“Its importance is mostly because it’s an indication that the new leadership in Saudi Arabia supports normalization,” Ms. Fontenrose said. “Bahrain doesn’t make a foreign policy move without Saudi Arabia’s express permission.”
Toby Matthiesen, a research fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, said that the Saudis “could be testing the waters” for their own normalization with Israel. But, he noted, Saudi Arabia participated in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and has a long history of support to the Palestinian cause, and its autocratic leaders are sensitive to public opinion on such issues.
After Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful Saudi crown prince, appeared to make an overture toward Israel in 2018 by saying in an interview that Israelis “have the right” to a homeland, his father, King Salman, quickly countered with a rare public rebuke.
Israeli experts hold little hope of normalization with Saudi Arabia as long as King Salman retains power, saying that the country’s custody of Islamic holy sites complicates its ability to strike a deal with Israel if the Palestinians see it as a betrayal.
“I hope I’m wrong, but I cannot imagine them signing a normalization of relations with us,” General Gilead said.
For now, Mr. Trump will happily settle for Bahrain, which will send officials to a White House signing ceremony planned for Tuesday for the Israel-Emirates agreement.
On Friday, Mr. Kushner called the Bahrain agreement “a historic breakthrough for the president and also for the world.” Mr. Trump boasted that “things are happening in the Middle East that nobody thought was even possible to think about.”
But Democrats and many Middle East analysts in Washington called such a self-congratulatory tone hyperbolic, particularly given that Israel’s relations with the Gulf’s Sunni Arab governments had been warming for years, driven by a common animus toward Shiite Iran. (Bahrain is a Shiite-majority state ruled by Sunni monarchs.)
“This latest agreement by itself is an encouraging sign of progress in a region that has been racked with conflict and civil wars,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow and Middle East expert at the liberal Center for American Progress. “But it’s hard to credit the Trump administration with this deal.”
And Mr. Trump played a far less direct role than Mr. Kushner, who has led the administration’s effort to strike a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. That project has largely been on pause since the administration’s release in January of a peace plan heavily slanted in Israel’s favor that the Palestinians rejected out of hand.
Since then, Mr. Kushner and other Trump officials have turned their energies toward Israel’s relations with other Arab countries, partly as a means of showing the Palestinians that their demands would no longer dictate the region’s wider dynamics.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Mr. Kushner said Bahrain’s move would “separate the Palestinian issue from their own national interests, from their foreign policy, which should be focused on their domestic priorities.”
Bahrain’s decision indicated that the Arab world was abandoning the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, a proposal endorsed by the Arab League that called on Israel to withdraw from occupied territories it had captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict in return for normal relations with Arab and Islamic countries, Palestinian analysts said.
“The Arab position that demands the establishment of an independent Palestinian state before normalizing with Israel is collapsing,” said Jehad Harb, an analyst of Palestinian politics who is based in Ramallah, in the West Bank. “The Bahraini move is an affirmation of this new reality.”
The Palestinians tried this week to persuade the Arab League to condemn the United Arab Emirates, only to receive a scolding from the group — traditionally at least a reliable rhetorical backer of the Palestinian cause — for meddling in the “sovereign foreign policy decisions” of its member states.
One Arab government official said the diplomatic steps by Bahrain and the Emirates reflected no loss of sympathy among Gulf leaders for the Palestinian cause itself, but they did signal a deepening impatience with what they saw as a dysfunctional and intransigent Palestinian leadership.
In a statement, the Palestinian leadership declared its “strong rejection and condemnation” of the announcement, which it called “a betrayal of Jerusalem, the Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinian cause, as well as support for legitimizing the Israeli occupation’s crimes against the Palestinian people.” A Palestinian Authority official also announced that the Palestinian ambassador to Bahrain was being recalled.
Israel and Bahrain have had unofficial ties on and off since the 1990s and enjoyed warm relations for several years. In 2019, Bahrain played host to a Trump administration conference promoting the economic aspects of its proposal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, during which Sheikh Khalid, a member of the Bahraini royal family who is now a diplomatic adviser to the king, gave friendly interviews to visiting Israeli journalists. “Israel is part of this heritage of this whole region, historically,” he said, adding that “the Jewish people have a place amongst us.”
Mr. Netanyahu announced the deal to his people as an event on par with Israel’s 1994 peace treaty with Jordan.
“It took us 26 years to reach the second peace agreement with an Arab country for the third peace agreement, 26 years,” he said. “But 29 days to reach a peace agreement between the third Arab state and the fourth Arab state, and there will be more.”
Acknowledging that the agreements did not come from out of the blue, Mr. Netanyahu said they “were made through hard work behind the scenes for years” but credited Mr. Trump for providing “important help.”