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PoliticsMiddle East

Arab states hesitant about Israeli ties

Lewis Sanders IV
August 29, 2020

It was an impossible mission for US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: push Arab states to normalize relations with Israel. But few are ready to take the next step forward and draw the curtain on an open secret.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walking with Bahrain's Crown Prince
Image: Reuters/Handout Bahrain News Agency

It was a trip like none other. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on a mission this week to secure normalization between Arab states and Israel, a feat long considered impossible due to the political impasse of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But only a few weeks before, the impossible became a working reality: The United Arab Emirates (UAE) agreed to normalize relations with Israel under the US-brokered Abraham Accord. The deal suspended Israel's annexation of occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank and opened the door for extensive relations between the two countries, including — one day — full diplomatic ties.

Read moreWill the Israel deal pave the way for Emirati repression?

On the list of countries Pompeo visited, none was more important than Bahrain. The island nation had long cooperated with Israel in areas of mutual interest and was one of the first countries in the region to welcome the deal. For many experts, it was the next candidate in line to normalize relations with Israel.

However, those hopes were dashed when Bahrain's King Hamas bin Isa al-Khalifa told Pompeo his country would not move forward with the US proposal. Instead, the king said Bahrain remained committed to the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for the creation of an independent Palestinian state within historical borders in exchange for normalizing relations with Arab states.

"Ultimately, Manama decided to stand by the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, underscoring Bahrain's tendency to align extremely closely with Saudi Arabia on most sensitive regional issues," said Giorgio Cafiero, chief executive of geopolitical risk consulting firm Gulf State Analytics.

Read moreWill the Israel-UAE deal really help to heal old wounds?

Too much to lose

Pro-democracy demonstrators in Bahrain waving flags
Beneath the polished surface of Bahraini modernization lies simmering sectarian frictionImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/H. Jamali

For Bahrain, there is too much on the line to normalize relations with Israel without wider regional agreement, notably from its close ally, Saudi Arabia.

"These hesitations could be driven by a number of factors including, for instance, Saudi Arabia's concerns that they would be identified as complicit should Manama normalize relations with Israel," said Cinzia Bianco, Gulf research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

As a regional heavyweight and religious leader, Saudi Arabia "does not have the same flexibility that other small countries have," she said. So even association by proximity to Bahrain could prompt "heavy criticism from Sunni religious quarters closer to Islamists, politically led by Turkey and Qatar," which are Saudi Arabia's regional rivals.

Bahrain is also led by a Sunni Muslim dynasty that rules over a predominantly Shiite Muslim population. Beneath the polished surface of Bahraini modernization lies simmering sectarian friction fueled by human rights violations committed against its Shiite population.

Since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, when mass protests sprang up across the region, Bahraini authorities have sought to contain anti-government sentiment by jailing activists and journalists and silencing critical social media content.

Yet, the Palestinian cause transcends the sectarian divide, offering a potential impetus for unrest on both sides of the population.

"There is sympathy for the Palestinian struggle on the part of Bahrain citizens on both sides of the sectarian divide," said Cafiero. "Bahraini officials had to contend with political risks that could have stemmed from Manama formalizing relations with Tel Aviv in terms of internal unrest and anger."

Read moreHow will Arab states react to Israel's annexation plans?

Who's next?

Palestinian protesters holding up a poster showing Israeli PM Netanyahu and Crown Prince bin Zayed
Bahrain, like other Arab states is committed to the creation of an independent Palestinian stateImage: picture-alliance/Zuma/M. Issa

As the Palestinian cause continues to form a central part of pan-Arab sentiment, experts believe that few others plan to follow the path of the UAE.

"I don't think the UAE-Israel deal paves the way for the establishment of formal and official relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar or Kuwait," said ECFR's Bianco.

"In all of these countries, despite some cooling towards the Palestinian cause within parts of the Arab youth, especially in Saudi Arabia, popular opposition towards normalization is still quite high."

That doesn't mean that some Arab states will suspend their back-channel ties with Israel. Instead, it means that unveiling an open secret would cause more harm than good in a region long defined by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As a result, the success of Pompeo's mission remains elusive — at least for the foreseeable future.