Last weekend, only a few days after the White House’s Jerusalem announcement, 23 members of a group called “This Is Bahrain” visited Israel. Simon Henderson explains what this might mean:
The group . . . was making its first trip to the country to show off Bahrain’s claim of tolerance of all faiths; it is dedicated to supporting King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s commitment to promoting religious freedom and coexistence across the globe, though it does not appear to have an official status. Bahrain does not have official ties with Israel, though King Hamad appears to believe that religious contact can be distinguished from open diplomatic contacts, a questionable though perhaps admirable distinction in terms of the Middle East. . . . [He] approved the trip himself, according to insiders.
[The visit] comes at a moment when Gulf states are bolstering their security and intelligence relationships with Israel because of a shared interest in confronting what they view as an Iranian threat. It is worth watching Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for their reactions to the delegation’s visit to see if Bahrain is leading the way or just trying to punch above its weight.
The group . . . met with Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, the only Arab member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. Since news of the delegation’s visit broke, reports from Israel have claimed that Kara intends to visit Bahrain in the coming months. “There will be more surprises in the coming year. We see great interest among the Gulf states in developing connections with Israel,” he said in an interview.
Although close to Netanyahu, Kara is not necessarily the most reliable indicator of the state of Gulf-Israeli relations, which are the domain of Israel’s military, intelligence, and diplomatic establishment. There may also be a tension between [the diplomats’] desire to maintain and strengthen the existing ties quietly and the politicians’ desire for a public breakthrough. It may be that the latter group is going to get its wish: Bahrain’s King Hamad is usually not regarded as the political equal of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or his Emirati [equivalent], Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, but this Jerusalem visit suggests Israel’s relationship with Gulf countries can’t remain in the shadows forever.