Mazen Mahdi
The National
July 23, 2009 - 12:00am

An article last week by Bahrain’s crown prince calling on Arab countries to adopt a new approach to relations with Israel has unleashed a torrent of debate from Manama to Washington, and is testing the ability of Gulf states to leverage their growing economic clout into regional political influence.

Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, in his article for The Washington Post, argued that for the Arab-Israeli peace process to move forward “a great deal of campaigning – patiently and repeatedly targeting all relevant parties” was needed.

“This is where we as Arabs have not done enough to communicate directly with the people of Israel,” he wrote.

“We have not done a good enough job demonstrating to Israelis how our initiative can form part of a peace between equals in a troubled land holy to three great faiths. Others have been less reticent, recognising that our success would threaten their vested interest in keeping Palestinians and Israelis at each other’s throats. They want victims to stay victims so they can be manipulated as proxies in a wider game for power. The rest of us – the overwhelming majority – have the opposite interest.”

Sheikh Salman added that the two reasons behind his call at this time were the need to make the region safer for all and because peace would bring greater prosperity to the Middle East.

“Already, the six oil and gas nations of the Gulf Co-operation Council have grown into a powerful trillion-dollar market. Removing the ongoing threat of death and destruction would open the road to an era of enterprise, partnership and development on an even greater scale for the region at large,” he wrote.

He also called on Arabs to reach out to the Israeli public by utilising the media to reaffirm to them that peace is a strategic option for the Arab world, denying at the same time that such a move would represent a normalisation of relations between Israel and Arab states.

“Some Arabs, simplistically equating communication with normalisation, may think we are moving too fast toward normalisation. But we all know that dialogue must be enhanced for genuine progress. We all, together, need to take the first crucial step to lay the groundwork to effectively achieve peace. So we must all invest more in communication,” he wrote.

It was not the first time a top Bahraini official has led efforts for better relations with Israel.

Last October the foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa, called for the creation of a new regional organisation that would include all of the Arab states, Iran, Turkey and Israel.

This month Bahraini officials from the foreign and interior ministries undertook the first visit to Israel to bring back five Bahrainis who were detained there while attempting to deliver aid by boat to the besieged Gaza Strip during the Israeli blockade.

Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry, confirmed that the officials had arrived in Israel, but said there was “no other significance” to the visit apart from accompanying the deportees home.

Bahraini opposition groups and anti-Israeli groups issued statements shortly after Sheikh Salman’s article appeared in which they criticised the move as a step towards “naturalisation with the Zionist enemy”.

Bahrainis, regardless of the sectarian differences that divide them on other regional issues, also quickly utilised the internet and Facebook to form reaction groups to reject the crown prince’s call.

Nonetheless, the article seems to have achieved its goal of provoking a renewed debate on ossified positions of the major players.

It drew strong support from the US administration and opened the door for serious debate within the Arab world on one hand, but on the other, has managed to draw only a cold response from within Israel.

The US administration, which just a day before the article’s publication was calling on Arabs to do more to support its Middle East peace initiative, welcomed the crown prince’s position and announced that the US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, would give a speech in Bahrain next week when he arrives in the region as part of a tour that will also take him to Israel.

Mr Mitchell, who will be making his second visit to Bahrain in less than three months, is expected to urge other Arab states to follow Sheikh Salman’s lead.

The Obama administration, which is locked in a disagreement with the Israeli government over the construction and expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, has also been pressuring key Arab states to take steps towards improving relations with Israel.

The reaction from Tel Aviv towards the Bahraini crown prince, however, has been less than enthusiastic.

The Jerusalem Post yesterday quoted unnamed Israeli officials who welcomed the Bahraini gesture, but who thought that it would have little effect on the Arab world.

“Gestures by Bahrain would be nice, but don’t necessarily mean anything,” one official was quoted as saying by the paper.

“The question is what influence they would have on any other country, and the answer is none. Obviously it is better than nothing, but moves by Bahrain won’t change anything in Arab public opinion or Arab politics.”

Key opposition groups in Bahrain have also come out against the call.

The Leftist National Democratic Action Society (Waad) issued a statement on Monday that said it rejected attempts to improve relations with Israel, describing the case of Palestinian territory as one of occupation and ethnic cleansing that cannot be resolved through a public relations campaign.

“The message that must be sent to the occupying state and its citizens is that there will be no peace without the return of the rights of the Palestinian, the return of the refugees to their land and the defeat of the racist Zionist project,” the statement said.

Bahrain is a pro-western state and serves as home to the US navy’s 5th Fleet Command. However, the small Gulf island was the scene of scores of angry protests during the US invasion of Iraq and Israel’s wars on Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza this year.

Bahrain also has a Jewish community of about 40 people, representing the only Jewish presence in any of the six Gulf states and one of the world’s smallest. It also houses the only synagogue in the Gulf.

Last year Bahrain appointed a Jewish woman, Huda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, to be its ambassador to Washington – a first for an Arab country, just a few years after she and another relative were appointed to the Bahraini Consultative Assembly.

The Arab states have supported the 2002 peace initiative introduced by Saudi Arabia to the Arab League, which called for peace with Israel if it withdraws to the 1967 borders.

In 2005, Bahrain closed down its boycott office, which oversaw the enforcement of the Arab League decision to boycott Israeli goods, ahead of signing its free trade agreement with the United States.


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