JERUSALEM: Bahrain’s foreign minister arrived in Israel yesterday on the first official visit from the Gulf kingdom, which normalized relations with the Jewish state in September. The minister, Abdellatif Al-Zayani, was welcomed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport by his Israeli counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi. Bahrain and its Gulf neighbor the United Arab Emirates both signed US-sponsored normalization accords with Israel at the White House on Sept 15, pacts that were condemned as a “betrayal” by the Palestinians and their allies.
The agreements shattered a longstanding Arab consensus that there should be no normalization with Israel until it reaches a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians. At a joint appearance following their talks, Ashkenazi hailed Zayani’s visit as “yet another historic day in the Middle East”. “It is an exciting moment to meet a friend for the first time, face-to-face,” he said.
Ashekanzi confirmed that Israel had agreed to open an embassy in Manama, while Bahrain was expected to soon open an embassy in the Jewish state. Bahraini citizens will be able to apply online for Israeli entry visas from Dec 1, and direct flights between the two countries are expected to begin soon, Ashkenazi said. Zayani expressed “confidence that this historic visit will be a further step on our journey towards a better more peaceful more secure and more prosperous Middle East”.
The Bahraini delegation travelled on Gulf Air flight GF972 – a reference to Israel’s telephone country code – on the airline’s first commercial flight to Tel Aviv. US President Donald Trump’s Middle East envoy, Avi Berkowitz, was also on the flight, which flew over Saudi Arabia, an accommodation by the Gulf’s powerhouse, which has so far resisted US appeals to normalize ties with Israel.
Zayani was due to hold talks in Jerusalem later yesterday with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. During his two-day trip, Pompeo is expected to make the first visit by a senior US official to a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. All Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land are regarded as illegal by most of the international community.
Their persistent expansion under successive Netanyahu-led governments has proved one of the biggest obstacles to the peace process with the Palestinians. The United States has very close relations with Bahrain too. The tiny but strategic kingdom just across the Gulf from Iran is home to the US Fifth Fleet. All three allies – Israel, Bahrain and the US – see the regional power as a common threat. Zayani’s visit is expected to be followed by others. On Tuesday, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin sent an official invitation to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayad Al-Nahyan. – Agencies