September 15, 2020 — Washington, D.C.
This piece originally appeared in The Times of Israel.
In 1995, a young Bahraini diplomat recently returned home from his first posting in Washington was assigned to accompany a small delegation of American Jews who’d secured an invitation to visit his island nation.
The itinerary he assembled included meetings with the long-serving Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Labor, and the Minister of Oil and Gas. The delegation visited the Bahrain National Museum, had lunch with a diverse and curious group of businessmen, and met with the U.S. Ambassador.
The young diplomat assured that the delegation was greeted with respect and openness at every stop on a two-day visit. It was almost four years after the Madrid Peace Conference, two years after the Oslo Accord, a year after the Jordan-Israel treaty. Peace seemed just over the horizon. No question was out of bounds.
I was privileged to have organized and to accompany that first American Jewish Committee visit to Bahrain – in fact, the first visit by any Jewish advocacy group. I remember asking many questions about Bahraini aspirations, regional coordination with the United States, Iranian ambitions in the Gulf, fallout from the (first) Gulf War, and Bahrain’s role in the Multilateral Working Group on the Environment, a Madrid conference spinoff.
But the question we raised again and again, a question the young Bahraini diplomat knew was our dominant concern – but could never be fully answered – was this: When and how can Bahrain and Israel, two small states in troubled neighborhoods, realize the promise of peace?
We left Manama, hopeful but uncertain, committed to returning annually. In time, the young Bahraini diplomat was promoted, and promoted again. In 2005, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa appointed the then-45-year-old diplomat, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Minister of Foreign Affairs. From that moment, through the nearly 15 years he served as Bahrain’s chief diplomat until becoming the king’s diplomatic advisor early this year, he never lost his interest in, nor his commitment to, expanding the circle of Arab-Israeli peace.
The Sept. 11 announcement by President Trump that Bahrain and Israel would establish full diplomatic relations, following on the heels of the Aug. 13 breakthrough between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, was the product of many factors – strategic, political, and economic – and of many players: a determined US administration, tireless and resourceful Israeli diplomats and other officials, and far-sighted and pragmatic Bahraini leaders. AJC bridge-building over a quarter-century played a supporting role.
But the constant beacon of encouragement and inspiration throughout the long years of striving for a new Middle East paradigm was Sheikh Khalid. He told a pan-Arab newspaper 11 years ago that Israel should be included – along with Iran and Turkey – in a new Arab forum as a way to solve regional problems. He took to Twitter on multiple occasions to defend Israel’s right to defend itself from terrorist attacks. He proudly posted press releases and pictures of his meetings with AJC delegations, knowing he would have to explain those encounters to critics wary of any overture to Israel and its supporters.
Sheikh Khalid is by no means Bahrain’s or the Arab world’s only brave visionary. He reflects the grounded views of King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa. His approach will be carried forward by his respected successor, Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani.
In the UAE, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi and the country’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, have steered a creative and practical course in partnership with the United States. UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr. Anwar Gargash, who addressed AJC’s Global Forum in June, laid out potential areas of cooperation with Israel. The late Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said, welcomed Prime Minister Netanyahu to Muscat almost two years ago, and the then-Foreign Minister, Yusuf bin Alawi, spoke openly of Israel’s place in the region.
What these and other leaders have grasped, and have been bold to not only say but to pursue as policy objectives, is that their people and the cause of regional peace, stability, and prosperity will benefit from a forthright, above-the-table relationship with Israel – standing together against extremism and Iranian aggression and seizing together the rich rewards of cooperation.
What they also have grasped is that a fair, secure, negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will never be reached in a climate of fear and mistrust, nor can it be achieved by not talking to Israel, or by pretending Israel doesn’t exist.
Normalization of relations between two Gulf states and Israel will begin replacing fear with partnership, mistrust with understanding. It will lay the foundation for enduring peace between the Jewish state and all its Arab neighbors – a dream that a visionary young Bahraini diplomat shared with his American Jewish visitors a quarter-century ago.
Jason Isaacson is Chief Policy and Political Affairs Officer of the American Jewish Committee.