Sep 11, 2020 - World

Behind the scenes of the U.S.-brokered Israel-Bahrain agreement

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairing the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem and Bahrain's King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa. Photo: RONEN ZVULUN / Getty Images

Hours after the August 13 announcement of the U.S.-brokered normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, senior Bahraini officials called President Trump's senior adviser Jared Kushner and White House envoy Avi Berkowitz with a message: "We want to be next," U.S. officials involved in the talks tell me.

Why it matters: Israel and Bahrain had a secret relationship for over two decades, meaning neither country had diplomatic relations and most of their contacts were through covert talks behind the scenes. However the talks which led to the joint statement on establishing full diplomatic relations took just 29 days.

The state of play: Sources familiar with the talks told me that starting August 13, intense discussions between the U.S., Bahrain and Israel started. Other than Berkowitz and Kushner, several other U.S. officials were involved in the talks including: National security adviser Robert O'Brien, Iran envoy Brian Hook, national security council Middle East director General Miguel Correa, White House official Adam Boehler and U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman.

  • Kushner, Berkowitz and their team spoke with the Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, several of his top advisers and the Bahraini ambassador to Washington.
  • On the Israeli side, the talks were led by the ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was closely involved.
  • Unlike the Israel-UAE agreement, which was kept highly secret even from Netanyahu coalition partners, this time the White House made sure they were in the loop.
  • A source familiar with the issue told me that when Kushner and Berkowitz were in Israel last Sunday, they briefed Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi about the breakthrough with Bahrain. In recent days, Gantz and Ashkenazi received more updates on the upcoming announcement.

After the visit in Israel and the UAE last week, Kushner and his delegation traveled to Bahrain. A source familiar told me that before that trip Kushner purchased a Torah with his own money as a gift to Bahrain's King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa.

  • Bahrain has a small Jewish community that has been in the country for years.
  • Berkowitz entered the meeting with the king holding the Torah and presented it.

The meeting with the king and the crown prince in Manama created momentum and Kushner felt he might be able to get an agreement then, but decided to give more time to iron out details, sources familiar with the issue told me.

  • The White House wanted to see the Saudi government give the Bahrainis a green light for the move, Israeli officials say.

Over the last few days, Kushner and Berkowitz continued talking to the Bahraini crown prince, his advisers and with Dermer. A source familiar with the talks told me the White House wanted the agreement with Bahrain to go through before the signing ceremony of the Israel-UAE deal on September 15.

What they're saying: The source said the White House thought that if two Arab countries sign normalization deals with Israel on the same day, the message to the
region and the world would be stronger.

  • “The UAE broke the ice and led the way but the Bahrainis had a very important role in the last three years — mainly when they hosted the Manama conference which launched the economic part of Trump’s Israel-Palestine plan,” the source told me.

What’s next: The phone call Friday between Trump, Netanyahu and the king of
Bahrain launched the process.

Trump said both countries are going to exchange embassies and ambassadors, begin direct flights between their countries and cooperate on health, business, technology, education, security and agricultural issues.

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