World

Israel, Bahrain to normalize relations, Trump announces

Bahrain has become the latest Arab country to agree to normalize ties with Israel as part of a broader diplomatic push by U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration to fully integrate the Jewish state into the Middle East.

Agreement brokered by White House comes on the heels of Israel-Emirati deal

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa released a joint statement on Friday heradling what they called a 'historic breakthrough.' (Abir Sultan and Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Bahrain has become the latest Arab country to agree to normalize ties with Israel as part of a broader diplomatic push by U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration to fully integrate the Jewish state into the Middle East.

Trump announced the agreement on Friday, following a three-way phone call he had with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. The three leaders also issued a six-paragraph joint statement, attesting to the deal.

The announcement on the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks came less than a week before Trump hosts a White House ceremony to mark the establishment of full relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Bahrain's foreign minister will attend the event.

"There's no more powerful response to the hatred that spawned 9/11 than this agreement," Trump told reporters at the White House.

Like the U.A.E. agreement, Friday's Bahrain-Israel deal will normalize diplomatic, commercial, security and other relations between the two countries. Bahrain, along with Saudi Arabia, had already dropped a prohibition on Israeli flights using its airspace. Saudi acquiescence to the agreements has been considered key to the deals.

"This is a historic breakthrough to further peace in the Middle East," Trump, Netanyahu and King Hamad said in the statement. "Opening direct dialogue and ties between these two dynamic societies and advanced economies will continue the positive transformation of the Middle East and increase stability, security and prosperity in the region."

Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner noted that the agreement is the second Israel has reached with an Arab country in 30 days after having made peace with only two Arab countries — Egypt and Jordan — in 72 years of its independence.

"This is very fast," Kushner told The Associated Press. "The region is responding very favourably to the U.A.E. deal and hopefully it's a sign that even more will come."

The agreement will likely be seen as a further setback to the Palestinians who tried unsuccessfully to have the Arab League condemn normalization with Israel until they have secured an independent state. That was one of the few cards still held by Palestinians in negotiations as peace talks remain stalled.

The joint statement made passing mention of the Palestinians, saying the parties will continue efforts "to achieve a just, comprehensive and enduring resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to enable the Palestinian people to realize their full potential."

"This is another stab in the back of the Palestinian cause, the Palestinian people and their rights," said Wasel Abu Yousef, a senior Palestinian official. "It is a betrayal of Jerusalem and the Palestinians… We see absolutely no justification for this free normalization with Israel."

Others may follow

The agreement makes Bahrain the fourth Arab country, after Egypt, Jordan and the U.A.E., to have full diplomatic ties with Israel. Other Arab countries believed to be on the cusp of fully recognizing Israel include Oman and Sudan. While tacitly blessing the deals Saudi Arabia, the regional power player, is not expected to move as quickly.

Like the U.A.E., Bahrain has never fought a war against Israel and doesn't share a border with it. But Bahrain, like most of the Arab world, long rejected diplomatic ties with Israel in the absence of a peace deal establishing a Palestinian state on lands captured by Israel in 1967.

The Israeli-U.A.E. deal required Israel to halt its contentious plan to annex occupied West Bank land sought by the Palestinians. Telephone calls soon began working between the countries as they continue to discuss other deals, including direct flights.

While the U.A.E.'s population remains small and the federation has no tradition of standing up to the country's autocracy, Bahrain represents a far-different country.

Just off the coast of Saudi Arabia, the island of Bahrain is among the world's smallest countries, only about 760 square kilometres. Bahrain's location in the Persian Gulf long has made it a trading stop and a naval defensive position. The island is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet and a recently built British naval base.

WATCH l Unpacking the Israel-U.A.E. announcement by Washington:

An agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates' to normalize diplomatic relations is a foreign policy win for U.S. President Donald Trump and could create a stronger opposition to Iran in the region. 3:39

Bahrain is acutely aware of threats posed by Iran, an anxiety that comes from Bahrain's majority Shia population, despite being ruled since 1783 by the Sunni Al Khalifa family. Iran under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had pushed to take over the island after the British left, though Bahrainis in 1970 overwhelmingly supported becoming an independent country and the United Nations Security Council unanimously backed that.

Since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, Bahrain's rulers have blamed Iran for arming militants on the island. Iran denies the accusations, although weapons experts suggest explosives found there bear similarities to others linked to Iran. Israel and Iran view each other as top regional enemies.

In recent years, Bahrain has cracked down on all dissent, imprisoned activists and hampered independent reporting on the island. While the Obama administration halted the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain over human rights concerns, the Trump administration dropped that after coming into office.

Bahrain's royal family and officials have come out in support of the Israel-U.A.E. agreement. However, civil society groups and others have condemned the move and warned the monarchy not to follow in U.A.E.'s footsteps — despite Bahrain's yearslong flirtation with Israel and Jewish leaders. Unlike the Emirates, Jews had a historical presence on the island and some still live there.

Bahrain has increasingly relied on support from other countries as it struggles with its debts, particularly neighbouring Saudi Arabia. In that way, Bahrain has followed in lockstep with Riyadh, meaning any normalization with Israel likely got the kingdom's approval, though, Saudi Arabia has for its part remained silent since the Emirati announcement.

Bahrain's Shia majority has accused the government of treating them like second-class citizens. The Shias joined pro-democracy activists in demanding more political freedoms in 2011, as Arab Spring protests swept across the wider Middle East. Saudi and Emirati troops ultimately helped violently put down the demonstrations.

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