The past few days have seen a new milestone in Israel’s relations with the Gulf, with Isaac Herzog becoming the first Israeli president to visit Bahrain on Sunday, during a regional trip that also included a visit to the United Arab Emirates.
Herzog’s visits to Manama and Abu Dhabi are significant for Israel’s bilateral relations with both countries and can be interpreted as largely driven by Israel’s desire to consolidate the diplomatic gains in the Arabian Peninsula that Israel achieved in 2020 through the standardization agreement with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. known as the Abraham Accords.
That consolidation is particularly important considering that the normalization agreements, after an initial flurry that also included Morocco and Sudan, do not appear to be about to expand to other countries, and the presence of the extreme right in the likely new Israeli government.
Bahrain’s resistance to normalization
Not all Bahrainis are pleased with the visit of an Israeli president to Manama. Certain factions in Bahrain have long denounced their government’s decision to join the Abraham Accords.
Two days before Herzog arrived in the island kingdom, some Bahraini protesters sung “death to Israel” at rallies in various parts of Bahrain.
On the day of his arrival, MP Abdulnabi Salman tweeted: “Palestine and its people remains our first issue, and it remains in the conscience of all lovers of freedom and justice in the face of calls for defeat and normalization with the usurping entity [Israel].”
“Bahrain has a vocal opposition, much of it rooted in its Shiite population, chafed by the rulers’ discrimination and repression, and with a strong affinity for Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah,” said Nabeel Khoury, a former US diplomat and senior non-resident official. member of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, in an interview with Al Jazeera.
“However, opposition to the warm relations between Israel and the Arab Gulf countries is widespread and is not limited to Bahrain’s Shiite population.”
Despite such opposition to normalizing relations with Israel, the Bahrain government’s narrative is that open and cooperative relations with the country serve the interests of the Persian Gulf country and those of its fellow members of the Cooperation Council of the Gulf (GCC), particularly given what Bahrain’s leaders consider to be an extremely dire Iranian threat.
As Aziz Alghashian, a fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said in an interview with Al Jazeera, the Manama authorities can be expected to come up with security-first talking points when addressing the future of Bahraini-Bahrain relations. Israel.
“There is a good part of [Bahraini] critics of this relationship [between Bahrain and Israel], but frankly, I think that the official discourse of Bahrain is going to hegemonize the narrative,” Alghashian explained. “He’s going to build this as a strategic relationship, not so much a friendly relationship.”
“I think the reason is that [by emphasising] the strategic need for this relationship [the aim will be] to overshadow some of these anti-Israel sentiments,” he added. “The official discourse will try to emphasize … the strategic depth of this relationship and how that is very necessary for the security of Bahrain.”
However, some analysts see a risk that Herzog’s visit could intensify tension between the Bahraini government and opposition elements that are strongly opposed to the Abraham Accords.
“While the authorities [in Manama] have stated that they will not allow demonstrations during Herzog’s visit, we may be able to see smaller demonstrations and protests after the visit,” Caroline Rose, senior analyst and director of the Power Vacuums program at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, told he told Al Jazeera.
world cup factor
It is difficult to analyze the Israeli president’s trip to the Gulf without taking into account the World Cup in Qatar. One of the defining aspects of this global event is the displays of solidarity from Arab and even non-Arab football fans who attend the matches.
“The important thing about the World Cup is that it really illustrated the fact that the Abraham Accords have been limited on a person-to-person level,” Alghashian said.
“What the World Cup has argued against is the notion that many Israelis are perceived differently in the GCC and that many Israelis are perceived with open arms.”
Essentially, having the Israeli president travel to the two GCC states in the Abraham Accords is important to Israel’s quest to cement such relations while “Herzog is trying to project a different image than the next incoming right-wing fascist government.” Alghashian observed. “There’s a bit of soft power at play here.”
The view from Iran
Iran has been very clear about the extent to which it perceives Israel’s growing presence in the Arabian Peninsula as a danger to regional stability and peace.
“Iran has already expressed anger over the Abraham Accords and is now focusing on countermeasures to what it perceives to be increased security risks at sea and within its borders,” Khoury said.
“[Among officials in Tehran] There is particular concern about Israel’s increased engagement with Bahrain, a country that Iran strategically views as a bulwark against its Sunni counterparts in the Gulf, and Iranian leaders have made a series of public statements warning against further cooperation and conflict-building measures. the trust that agreements promote. Rose explained.
However, it is critical to understand how Iran’s government is anything but monolithic and some aggressive elements in the state apparatus see stronger ties between Israel and the Persian Gulf monarchies serving their interests.
Hardline elements in Tehran welcome more openness in relations between Tel Aviv and some GCC states “because it could embolden their attacks, rhetoric or demonization against those respective GCC states,” Alghashian argues.
With Israel’s “symbolic borders” expanding into the Gulf, Iran’s hawks feel vindicated and now “are emboldened, saying ‘look, I told you, they’re collaborators with the Zionist entity.’ They would say that this has proved them right”.