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Israel PM meets Bahrain king, Jewish community on landmark visit
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met Bahrain's king on a landmark visit Tuesday to the small, oil-rich Gulf country, 17 months after they ended decades of tensions to normalise ties.
It was the latest diplomatic breakthrough since several Arab states under the US-brokered 2020 Abraham Accords ended their isolation of Israel despite the fact the Israel-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved.
Israel's new alliances reflect the fact that major Arab Gulf powers, the Jewish state and their common ally the United States share an animosity toward Iran and concerns about its nuclear programme.
"In these tumultuous times it's important that from this region we send a message of goodwill, of cooperation, of standing together against common challenges," Bennett said before his departure Monday.
On Tuesday he met King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa and Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, who is also prime minister of the island nation that is close to top regional power Saudi Arabia and which hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.
Bennett, the first Israeli head of government to visit Bahrain, discussed "deepening cooperation" in meetings with the defence and other ministers, his office said.
"We want to fill this relationship with substance in energy, in drive, in economy, in tourism and in the regional architecture," Bennett said. "We spoke about opportunities where we can strengthen the bridge."
Bennett also met US Fifth Fleet commander Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, said the premier's office, stressing its role in maintaining regional stability in the face of threats.
- 'Seeing my family' -
Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates became only the third and fourth Arab states -- following Egypt and Jordan -- to establish ties with Israel in the pacts negotiated under then US president Donald Trump.
Bennett visited the UAE in December.
Bahrain's king welcomed Bennett's visit and emphasised the importance of strengthening the bilateral partnership in light of the Abraham Accords, said the official Bahrain News Agency.
Bennett also met the small Jewish community of Bahrain, about 50 people, who had practised their faith behind closed doors since the 1947 start of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
After the Abraham Accords, a small synagogue in the heart of Manama was renovated and reopened.
Bennett told Jewish community members there that "I'm very delighted to be here in Bahrain, and I could think of no better way to kick off this visit than seeing my family here".
Bennett's Bahrain trip follows a visit by Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz earlier this month that saw the two countries sign a defence agreement.
That deal covered intelligence, procurement and joint training. As part of the agreements, Israel is set to post a naval official in Bahrain.
- 'Absolutely' about Iran -
Dore Gold, head of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, said Israel and Bahrain have been pushed towards closer ties as both are "under threat by Iranian actions".
Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, also said the focus of Bennett's trip is "absolutely" on Iran.
Iran is now engaged in talks in Vienna with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia directly and with the United States indirectly to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.
The agreement offered Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme. The US unilaterally withdrew from it in 2018 under Trump.
Bennett's government strongly opposes a return to the deal and has warned repeatedly that lifting sanctions would give Iran more money to buy weapons for use against Israelis.
Guzansky said that Bennett's trip, "in light of the talks in Vienna, it is a show of force, symbolism that the countries are working together".
He pointed to unrest in Bahrain blamed on Iran-backed opposition groups and the range of threats that Israel says Iran poses, notably its arming of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Guzansky said that in several respects Bahrain has been perceived as moving slower than the UAE in terms of consolidating ties with Israel.
Allowing an Israeli military officer to be based in Bahrain was "significant", however, he said as Bahrain "does not want to be seen as an Israeli base in the Gulf".