Twenty-six years after Bahrain welcomed an Israeli delegation for the first time, the small Gulf archipelago last week became the latest Arab country to agree to normalise its relationship with Israel.
It did not come as a surprise. Ever since US President Donald Trump announced on August 13 that the United Arab Emirates and Israel had agreed to establish diplomatic ties, there had been rife speculation that Bahrain would be next.
Despite Bahrain declaring last month that it was committed to the creation of a Palestinian state, the island state was always likely to follow the UAE suit “once the taboo had been broken”, Ian Black, visiting senior fellow at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, told Al Jazeera.
Home to the US Navy’s regional headquarters and connected to Saudi Arabia by a 25km (16 miles) causeway, Bahrain in recent years seemed less reluctant to publicise its relations with Israel.
In February 2017, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa met Jewish leaders in the United States and reportedly expressed opposition to the boycott of Israel by Arab countries. Later that year, the government-backed This is Bahrain interfaith group sparked outrage among Palestinians when it visited Israel only days after Trump had announced his controversial decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there.
Friday’s deal with Israel was slammed by the Palestinians as another betrayal by an Arab state, further undermining their efforts to achieve self-determination and leaving them isolated under a new framework to regional “peace” dictated by Trump’s administration that also views Iran as malice.
“There is no doubt that this represents a grave blow to the Palestinians – and a bleak sense that their cause is no longer a priority for Arab regimes,” Black said.
The Palestinian leadership wants an independent state based on the de facto borders before the 1967 war, in which Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and annexed East Jerusalem. Arab countries have long called for Israel’s withdrawal from already illegally occupied land, a just solution for Palestinian refugees and a settlement that leads to the establishment of a viable, independent Palestinian state in exchange for establishing ties with it.
Even though regional heavyweight and Iran’s archenemy Saudi Arabia has so far signalled it is not ready to take the same step itself, analysts say the recent deals would not have happened without its support.
Bahrain’s political agenda is “pretty much dictated by Saudi Arabia”, according to Marwa Fatafta, a policy member with the Palestinian policy network Al-Shabaka.
In late 2018, just months before Manama agreed to host a US-led conference to unveil the economic part of Trump’s so-called Middle East plan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait pledged $10bn in financial support for Bahrain to steady its finances.
Besides being “financially dependent on its neighbours”, Bahrain’s new alliance with Israel may help it entrench its power and “crush any resistance to authoritarianism or efforts towards freedom and democracy”, Fatafta said.
In 2011, during the onset of the Arab Spring uprisings, Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to suppress anti-government protests. Many of those who rallied against the Bahraini monarch were from the country’s majority Shia population who have long complained of repression.
So, joining the bandwagon led by the US may also provide the Bahraini monarchy “continued protection against its own people”, said Mouin Rabbani, co-editor of the Jadaliyya publication.
In normalising ties with Israel, Bahrain is ensuring it has gained an ally that is “equally committed to maintaining the status quo and preventing the success of any popular uprisings”, he said.
On Sunday, Bahrain’s top Shia leader Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, who lives abroad, rejected the recent normalisation deals with Israel and urged people in the region to resist.
Bahrain is the Gulf monarchy “most at odds with its own people”, argued Rabbani.