Israel and Bahrain cemented Sunday a deal officially establishing relations and signed several memorandums of understanding, further opening up the wealthy Gulf region to the Jewish state.
An Israeli delegation, led by National Security Council chief Meir Ben Shabbat, headed to Manama from Tel Aviv on the first direct flight between the two countries to formalise the US-brokered deal they agreed to at the White House on September 15.
Israeli and Bahraini officials on Sunday signed the document establishing bilateral relations in the presence of other international dignitaries and reporters, an AFP correspondent said. They also agreed seven memorandums of understanding.
King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, as well as Bahrain’s crown prince and prime minister, were absent from the ceremony, the correspondent said.
Bahrain’s foreign minister, Abdullatif al-Zayani, said during the event that it was the “start of relations between the two countries leading to constructive cooperation in various fields”.
He said the decision to normalise ties with the Jewish state comes from the “belief in the values of tolerance… in a region whose people have suffered from wars and conflicts”.
A flurry of diplomacy between some of Washington’s key regional allies has handed US President Donald Trump a key foreign policy win as he campaigns for re-election ahead of polls in November.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trump’s special assistant for international negotiations, Avi Berkowitz, travelled to Tel Aviv before joining the Israeli delegation’s flight to Manama.
The two sides will be free to open embassies in each other’s countries after the ceremony, Berkowitz said, adding that an Israeli embassy in Manama could open within months.
Upon arrival in Manama, Israel’s Shabbat said in Arabic it was a “great day”, adding these relations will “most likely benefit both sides”.
Before takeoff, he said the aim was “to translate into practical plans and concrete agreements the peace declaration that was signed on the White House lawn”.
The Jewish state’s normalisation of ties with the UAE and Bahrain has however outraged the Palestinians, who have called the deals “a stab in the back” and urged Arab states to maintain unity against Israel.
Zayani, however, on Sunday stressed that Bahrain calls for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to end the conflict based on a two-state solution.
Like Israel, both Manama and Abu Dhabi have vehemently anti-Iran foreign policies and Tehran has slammed the normalisation.
The Gulf monarchies have broken decades of Arab consensus that there would be no relations with the Jewish state until it had made peace with the Palestinians.
Bahrain, unlike the UAE, has a history of open politics and civil society movements, although rights have been curtailed in the past decade.
In a rare display of dissent in the small oil-rich kingdom last month, dozens took to the streets in Abu-Saiba, a Shiite village near Manama, to protest the normalisation.
In the wake of the Arab Spring protests in 2011, the Sunni monarchy accused thousands of dissidents from the Shiite majority of receiving orders from Iran.
Shabbat said the visit would focus on “finance and investments, trade and economy, tourism, aviation, communication, culture, science, technology, agriculture and additional issues”.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed his cabinet on Sunday, lauding what he called the “historic peace agreement” with Bahrain, and saying: “I hope that soon I’ll be able to tell you about more countries.”
The premier insists more Middle East states want ties with Israel as priorities have shifted.
Countries now value lucrative trade opportunities above positioning on the Palestinian conflict, he has argued.
The US and Israeli delegations are expected to head to Abu Dhabi to take part in a business meeting, according to the US Department of State.
Security cooperation is also likely to feature prominently in bilateral relations, with Israel’s Mossad spy agency chief Yossi Cohen visiting Manama earlier this month to meet Bahrain’s security brass.
Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia has said it will not normalise ties without a resolution to the Palestinian issue despite signs of rapprochement.
But analysts have said Bahrain, heavily linked to Saudi Arabia, would not have agreed to normalise ties with Israel without Riyadh’s blessing.
Israel agreed to suspend annexation plans in the occupied West Bank in exchange for normalisation with the UAE, but has expanded settlement activity since the deal was announced.
Israel’s parliament on Thursday ratified the agreement with the UAE, and a separate vote on the Bahrain pact is expected once the details are finalised.