US, Israeli envoys fly to Bahrain to advance nascent ties

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JERUSALEM (AP) — A high-level delegation of American and Israeli officials landed in Bahrain on Sunday on a mission to cement an agreement to establish formal diplomatic relations between Israel and the Gulf Arab state.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Israel's national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, led the delegations. The sides were expected to issue a joint statement later Sunday that would make Bahrain just the fourth Arab country to have full diplomatic relations with Israel.

“My hope is that this visit marks another step forward on the road to a truly peaceful, secure, stable and thriving Middle East," Bahrain's foreign minister, Abdullatif al-Zayani, said at a welcoming ceremony at the airport.

Bahrain joined the United Arab Emirates at a festive White House ceremony last month marking the “Abraham Accords,” a pair of U.S.-brokered diplomatic pacts with Israel. While the UAE's deal with Israel formally established ties, the agreement with Bahrain was less detailed and included a mutual pledge to follow suit. Sunday's one-day visit by the Israeli delegation aimed to complete that task.

The El Al flight landed at Bahrain International Airport on Sunday afternoon. The kingdom’s state-owned television channels did not carry the arrival live, nor did the state-run news agency announce the Israelis’ presence. Bahrain’s state-run news agency later published pictures of the arrival, acknowledging the Israeli officials were there to sign documents “establishing diplomatic relations between the kingdom of Bahrain and the state of Israel, in addition to a number of memoranda of understanding in the areas of joint cooperation.”

“Today is a great day.” Ben-Shabbat told the airport ceremony. “Another chapter in the vision of peace becomes a reality.”

Mnuchin said it was “incredible” to be on what was believed to be the first flight by Israel's national carrier El Al to Bahrain. “The opportunities here are quite enormous, both economic, trade, investment, cultural and security between the three countries," he said.

Israel's commercial El Al flight 973 — a nod to the international dialing code for Bahrain — flew through Saudi Arabia's airspace en route to Manama. Although Saudi Arabia has not normalized ties with Israel, it has signaled tacit support for the moves by its Gulf neighbors, which reflect shared concerns about Iran.

At Israel's Ben-Gurion airport, U.S., Israeli and Bahraini flags festooned the tarmac before take-off. Ben-Shabbat, one of the key Israeli officials involved in negotiations with Bahrain, said the visit could “translate plans to actions and concrete agreements" with the signing of a range of deals involving finance, investment, trade, tourism, communications, technology and agriculture.

Another Israeli official said the visit would include a joint statement late Sunday formally establishing diplomatic relations, including the opening of embassies and exchanges of ambassadors in the coming months.

The decision to establish ties with Israel was rejected by the Palestinians, whose leadership has scathingly criticized both the Emirati and Bahrain moves as a betrayal and an undermining of the Arab stance that recognition of Israel should come only after Palestinians achieve an independent state of their own.

The Palestinians have severed ties with the White House, accusing it of being unfairly biased toward Israel. U.S. officials have in turn cultivated ties between Israel and Arab states, hoping to increase pressure on the Palestinians to reduce past demands in peace talks.

Bahraini civil society groups and opposition figures, already targeted in a yearslong crackdown on dissent, have also spoken out against normalization with Israel.

Bahraini and Israeli officials have held numerous conversations since announcing their intention to establish full ties. Sunday's face-to-face meetings, however, are seen as another step toward normalization.

Meanwhile, Israel and the UAE have already signed a number of business, banking and intergovernmental agreements.

Bahrain and the UAE signed the agreement to normalize relations with Israel in a ceremony at the White House on Sept. 15. Egypt and Jordan are the only other two Arab states to sign diplomatic treaties with Israel, in 1979 and 1994, respectively.

The accords made public what had been a gradual strengthening of quiet ties between Israel and several Gulf states — forged in recent years over a shared concern over regional rival Iran. Other Arab countries could follow suit, with analysts and insiders pointing to Sudan, Oman and Morocco as possibilities.

The trip to Bahrain on Sunday also came as despite American objections. Bahrain, like several other Gulf Arab nations, views Iran as the most serious threat to its security in the Persian Gulf.

The Israeli delegation was slated to fly back to Tel Aviv later Sunday, while the Americans will head to the UAE before flying to Israel on Tuesday.

Last month, the first known commercial flight between the two countries brought a delegation of Israeli officials to Manama to discuss cooperation between Israel and Bahrain following the signing of an agreement to normalize ties.

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