JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel and Bahrain on Sunday agreed to establish formal diplomatic relations, making the small Gulf state the fourth Arab state to normalize ties with Israel.
The US-brokered deal limited a one-time visit by a senior delegation of US and Israeli officials to Bahrain.
Bahrain joined the United Arab Emirates in a festive ceremony at the White House last month marking the “Abraham Agreements,” a pair of U.S. brokerage firms with Israel. While the UAE’s agreement with Israel formally established ties, the agreement with Bahrain was less detailed and included a mutual promise to follow suit.
“It was truly a historic visit to start the opening of relations between the two countries, to have fruitful bilateral relations in both areas,” Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani said during the signing ceremony.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, led the delegations.
“Today we took the first formal step in bringing closer ties between the countries,” Ben-Shabbat said. “We were accepted with open arms, with warmth and cordiality.”
“This is an important step in the stability of the region to bring prosperity to all the people of the region and in the countries,” Mnuchin added.
Israel’s agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have marked diplomatic victories for the Trump administration and Netanyahu.
But they have come under harsh criticism from the Palestinians, who have long relied on a unified Arab stance that recognition of Israel should come only after the Palestinians gain their own independent state. The agreements reflect a changing Middle East, where common concerns over Iran and business opportunities have overshadowed the Palestinian question.
The Palestinians have severed ties with the White House, accusing it of being unfairly biased against Israel. U.S. officials, in turn, have cultivated ties between Israel and Arab states in hopes of increasing pressure on the Palestinians to reduce previous demands in peace talks.
Bahraini civil society groups and opposition figures, already targeted at a years-long breakdown of disagreement, have also spoken out against normalization with Israel.
Israel’s commercial El Al plane 973 – a nod to the international country code for Bahrain – flew through Saudi Arabia’s airspace en route to Manama. Although Saudi Arabia has not normalized ties with Israel, it has signaled tacit support for the movements of its Gulf neighbors, reflecting common concern for Iran.
The El Al flight landed at Bahrain International Airport on Sunday afternoon. Kingdom state-owned television channels did not carry the arrival live. Bahrain’s state-run news agency later released photos of the arrival, acknowledging that Israeli officials were there to sign documents “establishing diplomatic relations between the Kingdom of Bahrain and the State of Israel in addition to a series of joint memoranda of understanding. ”
In a rare footage, the Islamic State group condemned the transition to normalization with Israel, identifying the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and also accusing Saudi Arabia of showing “submission to crusaders” and Jews.
“Here now the Jews have come to you and wander freely in your streets and lands, feeling safe and secure with the approval of your tyrants and supported by your commandments,” said the group’s spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi. He also called for attacks to undermine the Saudi economy.
It was the first recording of al-Qurayshi in about a year.
Egypt and Jordan are the only other two Arab states to have signed diplomatic treaties with Israel in 1979 and 1994, respectively. Other Arab countries could follow suit, with analysts and insiders pointing to Sudan, Oman and Morocco as options.
The trip to Bahrain on Sunday also came when the UN arms embargo against Iran expired despite American objections. Bahrain, like several other Arab Gulf nations, considers Iran the most serious threat to its security in the Persian Gulf.
The Israeli delegation was to fly back to Tel Aviv later Sunday, while the Americans will go to the United Arab Emirates before flying to Israel on Tuesday.
Associated Press author Sarah El Deeb contributed from Beirut.