SNAPSHOT: Israel and Bahrain sign agreement to normalise relations
- Israel and Bahrain on Sunday (18 October) formally established diplomatic relations at a ceremony in Manama.
- Officials from both countries, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, signed eight memorandums of understanding (MOU), including a ‘Joint Communiqué on the establishment of diplomatic, peaceful, and friendly relations.’
- Other documents signed dealt with bilateral cooperation in fields such as civil aviation, communications, agricultural, technology, visas, trade, and investments.
- Meanwhile, the first ever nonstop passenger flight from Israel to Bahrain took place the same day, with a joint US-Israeli delegation arriving in Manama on El Al Flight 973, a reference to Bahrain's telephone code, from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport (TLV) for a one-day visit.
- US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House envoy Avi Berkowitz were part of that delegation.
- Bahrain is now the fourth country to normalise relations with Israel, after the UAE, Egypt and Jordan.
- The ceremony is widely seen as the Bahraini counterpart to the US-Israel delegation that arrived in Abu Dhabi on 31 August. During this visit, officials laid the groundwork for the UAE-Israel treaty, known as the Abraham Accords, that was signed on 15 September at the White House.
- However, the Israel-Bahrain agreements are intended to be fit for an interim period while the countries work toward a more comprehensive peace treaty similar to the Abraham Accords. They do, however, formally establish diplomatic relations and pave the way for the two countries to open embassies, exchange ambassadors in the coming months, and sign more cooperation agreements.
- Israel’s agreements with both Bahrain and the UAE have been diplomatic victories for the administration of US President Donald Trump ahead of the contentious presidential election in November. They also represent a victory for Netanyahu, who has sought to normalise relations with numerous Gulf countries and has been facing increasing criticism at home amid his corruption trial and the COVID-19 pandemic.
- It is likely Abu Dhabi and Manama were motivated to seek agreements with Israel by the increasingly polarised regional geopolitics and a desire to counter the influence of Iran. Indeed, the region looks to be increasingly divided into two camps: Iran, Turkey and Qatar on one side, and Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and to a lesser extent Egypt in a pro-US camp. While Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia has not joined the agreements, influence from Riyadh was likely a factor in the Bahraini government’s decision.
- Given the geopolitical significance, there has been resistance among Arab Shiite communities in Bahrain and throughout the region, with opponents concerned about the deals for two main reasons. Firstly, they reduce the pressure on Israel to end the occupation of the Palestinian Territories and create a two-state solution. Indeed, the Palestinians have heavily criticised the deals as they have long counted on a unified Arab stance regarding the formation of an independent Palestinian state as a prerequisite for any recognition of Israel.
- Secondly, the deals with Israel will likely further empower the regional Sunni leadership, especially in Bahrain, to crack down harder on domestic opposition that often comes from the Shiite community. This is because the deals will reduce the likelihood for backlash from the US and its allies against such actions.
- Amid this low-level but significant opposition, a number of small protests have been taking place across Bahrain, including on 2 October when protesters gathered in a rally dubbed by banned opposition group al-Wefaq ‘Friday of the Fall of the Treasonous Agreement.’ Protesters waved Palestinian flags and other signs and stepped on images of the Israeli and American flags. A nationwide ‘Day of Rage’ protest also took place on 18 September, organised by groups including the February 14 Youth Coalition.
- Marches denouncing the agreements have also been reported in Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
- Further ostracisation of the Palestinians will also have regional security implications. While Hamas has largely been reduced to a defence force in Gaza, militant groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda are likely to take up the cause as normalisation goes against their agendas.
- Indeed, IS on Sunday (18 October) called for attacks in Saudi Arabia against Westerners and infrastructure, including oil pipelines, factories and other facilities. The call was in response to Riyadh’s perceived support for normalisation agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. While the call is not indicative of an elevated terror threat in Saudi given the reduced capabilities of IS in that country, there is an underlying risk of ‘one-off’ terrorist incidents including stabbing or shootings taking place by IS sympathisers.
- There is a strong likelihood for further social unrest in the coming weeks, both in Bahrain and in the region. In Bahrain, protests are likely to occur in mainly Shiite areas outside Manama, especially Riffa and Hamad Town.
- Security managers should factor any rallies and additional security deployment into their travel plans and heed the instructions of the authorities. They should avoid any planned gatherings and use alternative routes for their journeys.
- Flashpoint events for additional unrest in the coming months will include the opening of an Israeli embassy in Bahrain, which is likely to occur before the end of the year.
- Another issue that would almost certainly lead to renewed protest activity would be other countries following suit and normalising relations with Israel. Oman is widely considered a probable contender for this scenario, especially as it has already maintained informal relations with Israel openly in recent years.
- Saudi Arabia establishing relations with Israel would be the greatest victory for Washington and Tel Aviv, although this is unlikely to occur at least in the short- to medium-term. Riyadh, despite offering its support for the deals, is likely to pursue a more cautious path due to its role as guardian of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, the most important sites for Muslims. Furthermore, public sympathy to the Palestinian cause within Saudi is likely to take precedence as normalisation of relations with Israel would likely be overwhelming to the largely conservative value system.
- However, inking an agreement with Israel is likely at least being considered as it would certainly benefit Riyadh's position in relation to both Washington and Iran. It would also fit into Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s approach toward modernising the country and showing both his domestic opponents and the West that he will do what is necessary to achieve this goal.