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Israel PM meets Bahrain's Jewish community on landmark visit
Israel PM meets Bahrain's Jewish community on landmark visit

Israel PM meets Bahrain's Jewish community on landmark visit

Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Bahrain's Jewish community Tuesday after arriving for the first visit by an Israeli head of state to the Gulf country, 17 months after they defied decades of tensions to normalise ties.

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Bennett was welcomed by Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani at Manama airport, which was decorated with the flags of both countries, late on Monday. He will meet King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman, who is also prime minister, on Tuesday.

Bennett's visit is the latest such initiative following the US-brokered 2020 Abraham Accords, which ran counter to the longstanding Arab consensus that ruled out ties with Israel in the absence of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"I'm very delighted to be here in Bahrain, and I could think of no better way to kick off this visit than seeing my family here," he said during a meeting with members of the Jewish community, according to his office.

Israel's ambassador to Bahrain, Eitan Naeh, Jewish community president Ebrahim Nonoo, Jewish community member and former Bahraini ambassador to the US Houda Nonoo were also present.

In September, Ebrahim Nonoo led prayer services in Manama's renovated synagogue, bringing Jewish traditions into plain view after decades of worship in private.

"We're very happy to be out in the open," Nonoo told AFP at the time.

Bahrain's tiny Jewish community, about 50 people, have practised their faith behind closed doors since 1947, when the Gulf country's only synagogue was destroyed in disturbances at the start of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But when Bahrain normalised ties with Israel, it opened everything up, with the small synagogue in the heart of the capital renovated at a cost of $159,000.

Bahrain and its close ally the United Arab Emirates became only the third and fourth Arab states -- following Egypt and Jordan -- to establish ties with Israel when they signed on to the pacts negotiated under US president Donald Trump. Bennett visited the UAE in December.

"In these tumultuous times it's important that from this region we send a message of goodwill, of cooperation of standing together against common challenges," Bennett said before his departure.

The trip follows a visit to Manama by Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz earlier this month that saw the two countries sign a defence agreement.

That deal covered intelligence, procurement and joint training, with Gantz boasting that it further consolidated the fledgling diplomatic relationship.

- 'Absolutely' about Iran -

The visit also comes at a time of regional tensions over Iran's nuclear programme.

Iran is engaged in negotiations with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia directly and with the United States indirectly to revive the deal formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The deal offered Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme. The US unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 under Trump. The drive to salvage it resumed in late November.

Bennett's government strongly opposes a return to the 2015 agreement, warning repeatedly that lifting sanctions against Iran would give it more money to buy weapons for use against Israelis.

Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said Bennett's trip is "absolutely" about Iran.

"In light of the talks in Vienna, it is a show of force, symbolism that the countries are working together," he said.

Dore Gold, head of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, said Israel and Bahrain have been pushed towards closer ties as both are "under threat by Iranian actions".

He pointed to unrest in Bahrain blamed on Iran-backed opposition groups and the range of threats that Israel says Iran poses, notably its arming of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

As part of their defence agreements, Israel is set to post a naval official in Bahrain, which hosts a base for the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.

Guzansky said that in several respects Bahrain has been perceived as moving slower than the UAE in terms of consolidating ties with Israel.

He said allowing an Israeli military officer to be based in Bahrain was "significant", however, noting that Bahrain "does not want to be seen as an Israeli base in the Gulf".