President Donald Trump has just announced another historic deal for normalization between an Arab state and Israel, marking another victory for his Middle East peace strategy.
On Friday afternoon, Trump tweeted that the leaders of Bahrain, a small kingdom in the Persian Gulf, and Israel had “agreed to establish full diplomatic relations.” The announcement comes less than a month after the United Arab Emirates took the same step as Jerusalem.
The joint statement of all three countries does not include specific details of what exactly the deal involves, but is likely to mean the possible establishment of embassies in other countries̵
Some details may still be worked out and the agreement may fail. The statement said Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdulatif Al Zayani would join Israel and the UAE for a signing ceremony at the White House on Monday, where the UAE and Bahrain would sign their respective agreements with Israel.
Trump already calls the pact successful.
“This is a truly historic day,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office after announcing the agreement. “It’s so interesting that it’s September 11,” he added. Friday is the 19th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
But not everyone is happy with the deal: the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the official national representatives of the Palestinian people, condemns the decision as “a betrayal of the Palestinian cause.”
This is not so surprising, as Arab countries have long supported the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel, at least rhetorically, if not always in practice. With more and more Arab countries like Bahrain doing well with Israel, the Palestinians may lose some of that support.
Prior to the announcement of the UAE-Israel agreement in August, the last peace agreement concluded by Israel with an Arab state was with Jordan in 1994 (signed with Egypt in 1979). Israel can now claim to have more friends in the region, possibly reducing pressure on it in its relations with the Palestinians.
But based on the changing dynamics in the Middle East and America’s own relations with Bahrain, it has always been a major contender for normalization.
Why Bahrain normalizes relations with Israel
The Bahraini leadership has certainly considered many reasons before engaging in US-led efforts to improve Israel’s ties with its Arab neighbors, but two key ones remain.
First, regional policy in the Middle East has changed dramatically in recent years.
While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once served as a major axis around Middle East policy, with almost every country in the region, from Iran to Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, on a par with the Palestinians against Israel, this has now changed. What is reviving the foreign policy of the Middle East today is the Arab-Israeli conflict with Iran – which some have called the Cold War.
As Iran has stepped up its efforts to establish itself as a regional hegemon, including through the development of a stable nuclear program (but at least not yet a nuclear weapon), rival Gulf states have found that their security interests are much more closely linked to Israel.
Bahrain is on the anti-Iranian side and there may be good reasons for it. As noted by Philip Smith, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, Bahrain suffered an Iranian coup in 1981 and a Iran-backed threat of riots in the 1990s.
“The government in Bahrain fully understands what Iranians can present at the table,” Smith told me. If given a chance, Bahrain will “find unique and new ways to respond to Iran’s actions.” And why not try to undermine [Iran] diplomatically with the ideological belief that there is: that Israel is a satanic entity that must be wiped off the face of the earth? “
Second, Bahrain and the United States have close relations, especially during the Trump administration. The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in the small kingdom, so each has military and economic reasons to remain friendly.
But Jared Kushner, the Middle East’s leading peace negotiator, has also made Bahrain a key player in its efforts. In June 2019, Kushner hosted his Peace for Prosperity seminar – designed to get ideas before the unveiling of his Israeli-Palestinian peace plan – in Bahrain. When looking for a country to follow the UAE to normalize relations with Israel, he and his team were likely to turn to Bahrain.
The question now is whether more countries – such as Oman and Sudan – will follow suit. If so, this could prove that the Trump administration’s strategy for the Middle East has been somewhat successful and will prove appalling for Palestinian hopes of having any real power in future talks with Jerusalem.
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