Bahrain Hitches Itself to Israel, but Not Everyone Along for the Ride

President Donald Trump meets with King Hamed bin Issa of Bahrain during their bilateral meeting, Sunday, May 21, 2017, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

To anyone even passingly familiar with Bahraini politics, this was a move that had been as expected as any. This thawing of relations had been in the works for years, decades even. While the United Arab Emirates had contented itself with at the very least not announcing to the world its secret diplomacy with Israel at all times, Bahrain was out in the open as any Gulf Arab nation could be with its quest to establish relations with the Israeli state.

Bahrain was the first Gulf state to ever host an Israeli delegation, all the way back in 1994, with Israel’s Minister for the Environment meeting with Bahrain’s Foreign Minister. While the meeting was officially about regional environmental issues, Minister Yossi Sarid was told by the Bahraini official that Bahrain viewed the meeting as a historic first step to relations. These meetings and dealings were kept secret as the 21st Century moved in, initially so as not to upset the Israeli-Palestinian peace process but later on as to not upset the Bahraini parliament, which was democratically-elected by a populace that was broadly against normalization with Israel, and a parliament that did not take kindly to events like Bahraini cabinet ministers meeting with Israeli cabinet ministers in public at the United Nations General Assembly, as happened in 2007

After Bahrain’s popular uprising was brutally suppressed in 2011, followed by an opposition boycott of the following election, followed by a full ban on said opposition factions in the election after that, their government began poking holes in the veil it may have had over its intentions. Bahrain began making increasingly bold moves toward Israel where other Gulf Arab states wouldn’t go publicly, with King Hamad going to dinners hosted by the pro-Israel Simon Weisenthal Center to denounce the Arab League boycott, and the then-Minister of Foreign Affairs stating that Israel had a right to defend itself. Despite these statements known and out in the open, the Bahraini government continued to claim to the public that it wasn’t interested in establishing relations with Israel. 

Bahrain would nevertheless make the move to host the Peace to Prosperity workshop, part of Trump’s peace plan, hosting a plethora of Israeli businessmen and media figures in what some called a welcome like “VIP treatment”. Attempts by Bahraini opposition supporters to criticize these moves by the Bahraini government have been met with bizarrely swift punishment, with one panel discussion held in May of this year shut down by authorities as it was in progress.

Now, with all the barely plausible denials out of the way and decades of diplomacy both secret and public finished, Bahrain has established full relations with Israel. This normalization deal comes only mere weeks after the UAE announced its own normalization deal with Israel, whereas in the past the time periods between Arab recognition deals with the Jewish state were measured in decades. However, while the periods of time in between and the nations signing said deals have changed, the one constant between all of them is the lack of any input by the Palestinians themselves.

The Abraham Accord, the deal between the UAE and Israel, prided itself in English-language media and to the West at large that the deal’s intrinsic value lay in what it did for Palestinians: its freezing of Netanyahu’s election promise plans of annexation. While this was what was displayed on headlines in newsstands all over the world, and new reports from Israeli media indicate the freeze intends to last until at least 2024, Emirati officials have admitted that if Israeli chooses to go forward with annexation anyway, normalization won’t cease. What is interesting about this peace deal between Bahrain and Israel is how little it seems to offer Palestinians as justification for normalization. 

While the UAE was at pains to demonstrate, albeit unsuccessfully, to supporters of the Palestinian cause that this deal gave great material benefit to the Palestinians, Bahrain appears content not to offer much at all in return for their valuable diplomatic recognition. Instead, the Kingdom mentioned in a joint statement with Israel and the United States that it hopes to meet the goals of the Trump peace plan, which all Palestinian political factions resoundingly and unanimously rejected months ago.

Another interesting note about the Bahrain deal was how, at least according to the Palestinian government, the Bahraini government assured them they would not normalize relations with Israel not just at the beginning of this year, not just at the start of the summer, but just last week alone. According to the Emirati newspaper The National, in a now deleted story, it was revealed that the UAE did not make any Palestinian official aware of the existence of the Abraham Accord before the announcement that it was going to be signed. With Bahrain, Bahraini officials explicitly lied about their intentions that they intended to act on shortly. Saeb Erakat, one of Palestine’s chief negotiators, said in an interview with Al Jazeera, “We were in communication with the Bahrainis, and we spoke with our Bahraini brothers. […] The King issued a statement saying that they would adhere to the Arab Peace Initiative and that there won’t be peace, all this was a week ago!” 

Reaction from the Palestinian government and Palestinian factions was swift and unified. As with the UAE, Palestine’s Ambassador to Bahrain was recalled and left the country. Spurred by the UAE normalization deal with Israel and now Bahrain’s coming so shortly after theirs, Fatah Central Committee Member Azzam al-Ahmad announced the creation of the Joint National Leadership for Popular Resistance, a coalition meant to bring together rival political factions that had attended a meeting of all Palestinian political factions in Ramallah and Beirut several days ago. Some commentators speculated the name of the group meant to call back to the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising, the coalition of Palestinian groups that included Fatah and the PFLP that participated in the First Intifada in the 1980s.

Back at home in Bahrain however, was a response that was unseen in the UAE when it announced its deal with Israel. While a poll by the Washington Institute found that an overwhelming majority of Emiratis, 80%, were against recognizing Israel, free speech in the UAE is near non-existent. Expression of this popular sentiment was met with clandestine arrests and media coverage considered at all sympathetic to the Palestinian feeling towards the Abraham Accord was pulled from the headlines. In Bahrain, the situation is different. While opposition parties had been kicked out of parliament, had its groups liquidated, and its supporters imprisoned and even stripped of their citizenship, the movement against King Hamad’s government still lives on long after the Pearl Revolution ceased, organized and visible in a way opposition in the UAE simply isn’t.

Popular Bahraini opposition figure Ayatollah Isa Qassim released a blistering statement from exile, saying plainly, “Normalization is an evil and a harbinger of a terrible evil for this religion and this nation,” as well as, “There is a great division between the rulers and the ruled in thought, mind, purpose and interests. Governments are experiencing a psychological defeat and want to impose it on the people, and the people have to resist this defeat.”

Later that night, in a show of protest that was not seen in the UAE where opposition movements are too scattered and crushed, some Bahrainis took to the streets to demonstrate against the Bahraini government’s recognition of Israel. Protesters waved Palestinian flags, stepped on American and Israeli flags, and chanted against the government. 

Bahraini civil society organizations like the Bahrain Bar Association have also come out against the deal, stating that “what results from normalisation will not enjoy popular backing,” leading to a top judge to order judicial employees not to speak out and criticize government decisions.

What is clear from the Bahraini opposition movement that is building against this deal is that the seemingly muted reaction from Emiratis to their normalization deal should not have communicated, as some derived at the time, that the Arab world is behind rapprochement with Israel. In countries where even an ounce of free speech exists, or in Bahrain’s case where it used to exist, the actual Arab world’s opinions about relations with Israel come to light. While Western diplomats and mainstream media outlets might talk about how the Arab world has become tired of the Palestinian cause, it is important not to construe the opinions of unelected Arab monarchs with the opinions of the millions of Arab citizens under their control.

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