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Israel PM’s Bahrain visit was an affront to the memory of the uprising

February 15, 2022 at 7:03 pm

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett delivers a speech during a visit to the Bahraini capital Manama, on February 15, 2022 [GUILLAUME LAVALLEE/AFP via Getty Images]

Yesterday’s historic first visit by an Israeli Prime Minister to Bahrain was the highest-profile visit yet since the normalisation of relations between the countries in the US-sponsored agreement, which also included the UAE.

Naftali Bennett’s 24-hour trip to Manama saw him being greeted by Foreign Minister, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, and Industry, Commerce and Tourism Minister, Zayed Rashid Al-Zayani, before meeting with Crown Prince and Prime Minister, Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa and his father, King Hamad.

According to Bennett’s office, the meeting will focus on strengthening bilateral ties and comes a week after it was reported that Israel will dispatch a naval officer to an official posting in the tiny Gulf Kingdom where the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based. The move will make Bahrain the first Arab state to openly host a stationed Israeli military dignitary. It also follows the signing of a security cooperation agreement earlier this month, during which Defence Minister, Benny Gantz, went on to describe the partnership as “ironclad” and more important than ever.

These closer relations also come amid shared concerns over Iran and its nuclear ambitions and attempts by the US to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which it had opted to unilaterally withdraw from under the previous administration of former President Donald Trump. In an interview with Bahraini newspaper Al-Ayam, Bennett reiterated that both countries are facing “major security challenges” stemming from the Islamic Republic, which he accused of destabilising the entire region.

“We will not allow that,” he said. “We are fighting Iran and its henchmen in the region day and night and we will help our friends in promoting peace, security and stability, whenever we are asked.”

While Bennett’s visit on 14 February was, indeed, unprecedented in Bahrain’s history, the timing was also interesting in that his arrival was on the 11th anniversary of the Bahraini Uprising which was crushed by a Saudi-led military intervention. The visit may come around closer ties between the countries, but it is also arguably intended to add further insult into the failed uprising over a decade ago. The uprising may have ultimately been unsuccessful in evolving into either reform or revolution, but the sentiments still remain entrenched among the native Arab majority-Shia, ethnic Baharna and the Persian Ajam community, who have been ruled by the Sunni Al-Khalifa family since the 18th century, who themselves originate from Saudi Arabia’s Najd region.

ONTHISDAY: Remembering the Bahraini Uprising

Israel, which has its own track-record of suppressing the indigenous population of the Palestinian inhabitants of the land, will find common ground in this regard with their new open ally, in addition to the their security interests over Iran. According to one opinion piece, ironically by a fellow at the “Foundation for Defence of Democracies”, this latest milestone represents an alignment of the Gulf monarchy with Israel as opposed to bullying by, and “submission” to Iran. Yet, while there was mention of past Iranian claims of sovereignty over Bahrain, and Iran’s support of Yemen’s Houthi-led government which has expanded its retaliatory attacks to neighbouring UAE, there was no mention at all about the peaceful pro-democracy uprising’s anniversary, its causation or the present situation.

Bennett’s visit was unpopular among the country’s Shia majority and condemned by the outlawed main opposition party, Al-Wefaq. Despite the ever-present risk of a violent crackdown by authorities, protests were staged in several Shia villages against the visit and in solidarity with the Palestinians. Al-Wefaq’s deputy Secretary-General, Hossein Al-Dihi, was quoted as saying “We, the people of Bahrain, will remain defenders of the Palestinian cause and do not accept any normalisation deal with the occupying regime”.

Rallies were also held to mark the uprising’s anniversary as has been the case annually since 2011, in addition to online activism to raise awareness. Dissident leader and Senior Bahraini cleric, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, who is currently living in exile in Iran, reiterated calls for a continuation of the popular uprising and also for the establishment of a democratic, constitutional system to replace the monarchic rule of the Al-Khalifas in favour of a more representative system. In 2017, King Hamad ratified the 2002 constitution, in a move that was criticised by Amnesty International as paving the way for military trials of civilians and a “disaster” for the future of fair trails and justice in the country.

OPINION: Bahrain is yet to normalise ties with its own people

During his visit, Bennett also met with members of the Gulf state’s small Jewish community who have been worshipping at the country’s only synagogue which was recently refurbished. This development in Bahrain’s religious tolerance also includes the establishment of the Arabian Peninsula’s largest Catholic Church and plans under way for the construction of a Hindu temple, the second of its kind in the region after the UAE. However, it appears this tolerance is not extended towards the country’s majority Shia community who witnessed the damage of 53 Shia mosques and complete destruction of 23 mosques during the uprising, with the authorities refusing to rebuild any, despite pledges to do so.

Bahrain’s decision to oppose Iran and join the pro-Zionist Arab states not only reaffirms the notion that only those aligned with Tehran oppose Israel, but also shows how out of touch the ruling dynasty is with the majority of their subjects, who not only are vocally against their government’s normalisation with Israel, but also refuse to accept the discriminatory, unjust status-quo and the outcome of the “Forgotten Uprising” of the Arab Spring.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.