The Bahrain-Israel Normalization Agreement Indicates Shift In Middle East Politics

On September 15, Bahrain normalized its relations with Israel making it the second Arab nation to do so this year. The diplomatic move is formally recognized under the “Abraham Accords: Declaration of Peace, Cooperation, and Constructive Diplomatic and Friendly Relations.” According to the New York Times, the agreement is unsurprising. Only last month on August 13, the UAE stabilized its diplomatic relations with Israel and Bahrain; Israel has had longstanding unofficial ties.

In a joint statement from the United States, Bahrain, and Israel, all three nations seek to “continue the positive transformation of the Middle East and increase stability, security, and prosperity in the region.” The New York Times observed that Bahrain holds strategic importance to the United States; the Gulf nation houses the U.S. navy’s fifth fleet and borders Saudi Arabia, a major player in Middle Eastern politics and a U.S. ally. Undoubtedly, the U.S. has a vested interest in securing peace in the Middle East and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has credited President Trump as an “important help” in mediating the deal.

The signing of the Abraham Accords indicates a growing shift in the political environment of the region. Kirsten Fontenrose, the former Senior Director for Gulf Affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, has suggested that the agreement is important because “it’s an indication that the new leadership in Saudi Arabia supports normalization.” Commentators in the New York Times have speculated that there is little hope of Israeli-Saudi normalization while King Salman holds power. However, hope is not lost as the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to be open to normalization in the future.

Back in the U.S., President Trump has described the deal as a “historic breakthrough to further peace in the Middle East.” Announced on September 11, Trump praised the deal as a “powerful response to the hatred that spawned 9/11.” The response is not so unanimous within Bahrain. Some Bahraini citizens have joined the voices of those in the Middle East who condemn the agreement as a disappointment to the Palestinian cause.

Within the Arab nations there has been an unspoken pact those who support a future Palestinian state will reject cooperation with Israel. By normalizing relations with Israel, Bahrain has effectively abandoned the effort to push for a creation of a Palestinian state through the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.

Despite emphasizing a desire to foster peace in the region and support the Palestinians, Palestinian leaders have expressed anger at Bahrain. Palestinian leaders immediately criticized the agreement and withdrew their Palestinian ambassador from Bahrain. In response to the issue, King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa of Bahrain claimed that “our steps towards peace and prosperity are not directed against any entity or power, rather they are in everyone’s interest and aim for good neighbourliness.”

The Bahrain-Israel normalization agreement has led to a number of street protests across Bahrain which have been dealt with swiftly by the government. In further protest against the move, one million people have signed a charter rejecting Bahrain’s decision to normalize relations with Israel. The Middle East Eye reports that the charter was written by the UAE Anti-Normalization Association, one of several associations that have condemned the accord. The twitter hashtag “people against normalization” has become popular following the announcement of Israel-Bahrain normalization, signalling strong opposition to the deal.

The Bahrain-Israel normalization agreement underscores the potential reorientation of Middle Eastern alliances. Mouin Rabbani, the co-editor of Jadaliyya, an Arab Studies Institute publication, said that “the US and Israel have launched a comprehensive campaign to remove the question of Palestine from not only the international but also regional agenda, and to replace the Arab-Israeli conflict with an Arab-Iranian conflict.” The enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has influenced policy for decades, will likely exert an even greater influence over Middle Eastern affairs in the future.