Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met the King of Bahrain during a historic visit to the oil-rich Gulf country, 17 months after establishing relations under a US-sponsored deal in 2020, based in part on shared concerns about Iran.
Bennett was on a day-long visit to the island kingdom on Tuesday, the first by an Israeli leader.
He was greeted by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who is also the kingdom’s prime minister, and a military guard at Gudaibiya Palace in Manama. He told the Crown Prince he had come “with a spirit of goodwill, cooperation, solidarity in the face of mutual challenges”.
Bennett also met with several government ministers and discussed the need for greater economic cooperation. “We want to fill this relationship with substance in energy, in training, in the economy, in tourism and in regional architecture,” he said.
“We need to do more to get to know each other and build on the Abraham Accords, which was such a historic deal,” the crown prince said, referring to the US-brokered deal.
The King of Bahrain welcomed Bennett’s visit and stressed the importance of strengthening the bilateral partnership in light of the so-called Abraham Accords, the official Bahrain News Agency said.
The king and the Israeli prime minister “stressed the keenness to further promote bilateral relations and joint work to serve common interests as well as regional security, stability and development,” he said.
In recent months, as tensions with Iran have soared, the two new allies have intensified their military cooperation.
Earlier this month they signed a defense pact and last week Bahrain announced that an Israeli naval officer would be stationed in Manama, which is also home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet. The Israeli army has confirmed that it will have a naval representative attached to the 5th fleet.
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Bennett met with Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Brad Cooper during his stopover in Manama. Bennett’s office said the fleet “is an important component in maintaining regional stability in the face of various security threats.”
He did not specifically mention Iran. But Israel has made no secret of its concerns about Iranian naval activities in the region.
Israel has boosted its naval presence in the Red Sea after a series of attacks on commercial ships with ties to Israel, which it has blamed on Iran.
Earlier this month, Israeli ships took part in a naval exercise in the Gulf, which included ships from Oman and Saudi Arabia, with which Israel has no formal diplomatic relations. Israeli warships also took part in US-led naval exercises with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in the Red Sea in November.
Israel and Bahrain have exchanged ambassadors and signed trade and defense agreements since signing the normalization agreement in September 2020.
The accords enraged the Palestinians, who felt a betrayal of their national cause. Palestinian leaders saw it as an abandonment of a long-standing engagement in the Arab world that calls for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and acceptance of a Palestinian state in return for normal relations with Arab countries.
Bennett also met with Bahrain’s small Jewish community, which includes about 50 people.
After the signing of the normalization agreement, a small synagogue in the heart of Manama was renovated and reopened.
Bennett told members of the Jewish community there, “I’m very excited to be here in Bahrain, and I couldn’t think of any better way to kick off this visit than to see my family here.”
The overture from Bahrain’s monarch, a Sunni Muslim, was criticized by a majority Shiite-led opposition. The country has seen demonstrations of solidarity with the Palestinians.
Normalization with Israel remains a contentious issue for Bahrain’s Shia population, who have long accused the country’s rulers of treating them like second-class citizens.
Bennett’s visit came as negotiations between world powers and Iran to reach an international agreement to curb Tehran’s nuclear program continued in Vienna. Israel said it would not be bound by such an agreement and would take all necessary measures, including a military attack, to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Iran has always declared its nuclear program to be for peaceful purposes only.