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 relationships with both countries and can be interpreted as being largely driven by Israel’s desire to consolidate the diplomatic gains in the Arabian Peninsula that Israel achieved in 2020 through the normalisation deal with Bahrain and the UAE known as the Abraham Accords.
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That consolidation is particularly important considering the normalisation deals, after an initial flurry that also included Morocco and Sudan, do not appear to be on the verge of expanding to other countries, and the far-right’s presence in the likely new Israeli government.
Bahraini resistance to normalisation
Not all Bahrainis are pleased with an Israeli president visiting 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 chanted “death to Israel” at rallies in various parts of Bahrain.
On the day of his arrival, MP Abdulnabi Salman tweeted: “Palestine and its people remain our first issue, and it remains in the conscience of all those who love freedom and justice in the face of calls for defeat and normalisation with the usurping entity [Israel].”
“Bahrain has a vocal opposition, largely embedded in its Shia population – chafing under discrimination and repression by the rulers – and with strong affinity to Iran and to Lebanese Hezbollah,” said Nabeel Khoury, a former United States diplomat and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, in an interview with Al Jazeera.
“Opposition to the warming relationships between Israel and Arab Gulf countries is widespread however and not limited to the Shia population of Bahrain.”
Despite that opposition to normalised relations with Israel, the Bahraini government’s narrative is that open and cooperative relations with the country serve the Gulf Arab country’s interests and those of its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, particularly given what Bahrain’s leadership views as an extremely grave Iranian menace.
As Aziz Alghashian, a fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said in an interview with Al Jazeera, it can be expected that authorities in Manama advance security-first talking points when addressing the future of Bahraini-Israeli relations.
“There are a fair share of [Bahraini] critics of this relationship [between Bahrain and Israel], but quite frankly I think that the official Bahraini discourse is going to hegemonise the narrative,” explained Alghashian. “It’s going to construct this as a strategic relationship – not very much a friendly relationship.”
“I think the reason being is that [by emphasising] the strategic necessity of this relationship [the aim will be] to eclipse some of these anti-Israeli sentiments,” he added. “The official discourse will try to emphasise… the strategic depth to this relationship and how that’s very necessary to the security of Bahrain.”
Nonetheless, some analysts see a risk of Herzog’s visit intensifying tension between the Bahraini government and elements of the opposition which staunchly oppose the Abraham Accords.
“While authorities [in Manama] have avowed that they will not permit demonstrations during Herzog’s visit, it’s possible that we may witness smaller demonstrations and protests following the visit,” Caroline Rose, a senior analyst and head of the Power Vacuums programme at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, told Al Jazeera.
World Cup factor
It is difficult to analyse the Israeli president’s trip to the Gulf without taking into consideration the ongoing World Cup in Qatar. One of the defining aspects of this global event is the displays of solidarity on the part of Arab and even non-Arab football fans attending the games.
“What’s important about the World Cup is that it really illustrated the fact that the Abraham Accords have been limited on the people-to-people level,” said Alghashian.
“What the World Cup has argued against is the notion that many Israelis are being perceived differently in the GCC and that many Israelis are being 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 consolidate such relations while “Herzog is trying to project a different image than the next incoming fascistic, right-wing government,” observed Alghashian. “There is a bit of soft power at play here.”
The view from Iran
Iran has been crystal clear about the extent to which it perceives Israel’s growing presence on the Arabian Peninsula as a danger to regional stability and peace.
“Iran has already voiced its anger over the Abraham Accords and is now focused on countermeasures to what it perceives as increased security risks at sea and inside its borders,” said Khoury.
“[Among officials in Tehran] there is particular concern with increased Israeli engagement with Bahrain, a country that Iran strategically perceives as a stronghold against Sunni counterparts in the Gulf, and Iranian leaders have made a series of public statements warning against further cooperation and confidence-building measures that advance the accords,” explained Rose.
However, it is critical to understand how Iran’s government is anything but monolithic and some hawkish elements in the state apparatus see stronger ties between Israel and Gulf Arab monarchies as serving their interests.
More hardline elements in Tehran welcome the greater openness in relations between Tel Aviv and some GCC states “because it could embolden their attacks, their rhetoric, or demonisation against those respective GCC states,” argues Alghashian.
With Israel’s “symbolic borders” having expanded to the Gulf, Iran’s hawks feel vindicated and now “they are emboldened, saying ‘see I told you so, they are collaborators of the Zionist entity.’ They would claim that this has proven them right.”