Israel, Bahrain cement new ties with pledges of embassies and visas

(From left) Mike Pompeo, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani give a press conference after their trilateral meeting in Jerusalem. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

JERUSALEM (REUTERS, AFP) - Bahrain and Israel said on Wednesday (Nov 18) they would open embassies, establish online visa systems and launch weekly flights between the countries soon, in a broadened cooperation promoted by Washington as an economic boon and means of isolating Iran.

On the first official visit by Bahraini officials to Israel, the Gulf kingdom's foreign minister, Abdullatif Al-Zayani, said a Sept 15 deal normalising relations spelled "a warm peace that will deliver clear benefits to our peoples".

The United Arab Emirates, which has also normalised ties with Israel, sent a delegation last month that did not leave Ben Gurion Airport in what was described as a coronavirus precaution.

The Bahraini envoys went on to Jerusalem, which Israel, with US backing, considers its capital. Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem for a state, have been outraged by the Arab countries' engagement with Israel while their own goals are unmet.

In a possible sign of a rethink, a senior Palestinian official told Reuters that Palestinian ambassadors would return to Abu Dhabi and Manama after having been recalled in protest.

Al-Zayani's trip coincided with a visit to Israel by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who hailed the regional rapprochement brokered by the Trump administration as it presses sanctions against Iran.

The normalisation deals "tell malign actors like the Islamic Republic of Iran that their influence in the region is waning and that they are ever more isolated and shall forever be until they change their direction," Pompeo said alongside his Bahraini counterpart and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Al-Zayani announced that, as of Dec 1, Bahrainis and Israelis will be able to apply online for entry visas. He also submitted a request to open a Bahraini embassy in Israel and said an Israeli embassy had been approved for Manama.

Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Askenazi, who is due to visit Manama next month, said he hoped opening ceremonies for the embassies would be held by the end of 2020.

The Bahraini delegation travelled on Gulf Air flight GF972 - a reference to Israel's telephone country code - in what was the airline's first flight to Tel Aviv. Al-Zayani predicted 14 such flights weekly starting next year, as well as flights to the smaller Israeli destinations of Haifa and Eilat.

Sudan followed Bahrain and UAE in announcing last month it would move towards ties with Israel. Further such developments appear unlikely before US President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

Israel was due to send a first delegation to Sudan on Sunday, officials told Reuters, but the trip was postponed over what they described as logistical issues.

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Speaking on Israel's Army Radio, Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen said a commitment towards a tough policy on Iran by Biden would determine whether other countries would opt for normalisation deals with Israel.

Bahrain's al-Zayani said the historic US-brokered deals the Gulf kingdom and the United Arab Emirates had struck to normalise ties with Israel would help foster a dawn of "peace for the entire Middle East".

"To achieve and consolidate such a peace, the Palestinian and Israeli conflict needs to be resolved," the minister said alongside Pompeo and Netanyahu.

"I therefore call for both parties to get around the negotiating table to achieve a viable two-state solution."

Pompeo has no scheduled meetings with Palestinian leaders, who have strongly rejected Trump's stance on the conflict, including Washington's recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.

Pompeo instead stressed the need to work together to isolate common foe Iran, which the US Treasury targeted with new sanctions the same day. Iran is "ever more isolated and this shall forever be until they change their direction," Pompeo said.

Israeli air strikes

The US and Israel - along with Gulf states the UAE, Bahrain and notably Saudi Arabia - share a strong animosity toward Shi'ite Muslim regional power Iran.

They accuse the Islamic republic of seeking to build a nuclear bomb, fuelling unrest from Syria and Iraq to Lebanon and Yemen, and of seeking the destruction of Israel.

Trump's outgoing administration has made isolating Iran a centrepiece of its regional policy.

Pompeo warned the Islamic republic that the deals the UAE and Bahrain have reached with Israel showed "its influence in the region is waning".

The New York Times reported Monday that Trump had last week asked top aides about the possibility of striking Iran's nuclear facilities.

Senior officials reportedly "dissuaded the president from moving ahead with a military strike," warning him such an attack could escalate into a broader conflict in the twilight of his presidency.

Israel said Wednesday it had hit Iranian targets in Syria with overnight air strikes, in its latest of many attacks in the war-torn country.

An Israeli army statement said its fighter jets had "struck military targets" belonging to the Syrian armed forces and Iranian Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Britain-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 10 people were killed, including foreign fighters and Syrian soldiers.

Israel said it launched the attacks in response to the discovery of improvised explosive devices near a military base on its side of the armistice line on the occupied Golan Heights.

Netanyahu said Israel would "not tolerate any attempt to attack us from Syrian territory," reiterating the Israeli policy to "not allow Iranian military entrenchment against us in Syria".

Grapes of Wrath

Pompeo - who has so far backed Trump in refusing to concede defeat to President-elect Joe Biden - is on a Europe and Middle East tour that has so far taken him to France, Turkey and Georgia.

On Thursday, he is expected to become the first US top diplomat to visit a Jewish industrial zone in the occupied West Bank, where a vineyard has named one of its wines after him.

Palestinians have angrily denounced the expected visit to the Psagot winery near Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority.

Dozens of Palestinians demonstrated in Al-Bireh, a community located between Jerusalem and Ramallah, and some threw stones at soldiers guarding the entrance to the settler industrial zone.

Israeli planning and building of settlements in the Palestinian territories has boomed under successive Netanyahu governments and especially since Trump took office in 2017.

Pompeo said a year ago that the United States no longer considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be contrary to international law.

Those comments were hailed by the Psagot vineyard, which has been fighting to keep the label "Israel" on its bottles, rather than the phrase "Israeli settlements" demanded by several European court rulings.

The Palestinian prime minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh, said Pompeo "is going to visit the... Jewish settlement simply because he is visiting a winery that has produced a bottle of wine named after him.

"If international relations are designed on a bottle of wine, it's to hell with international relations."

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