Oct 21, 2020 - World

Israel's secret embassy in Bahrain

Illustration of a business "open" sign slipping to reveal an Israeli flag

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

This story is from Barak Ravid's new weekly newsletter, Axios from Tel Aviv, which launches today. Sign up here.

Israel has been conducting undercover diplomacy in Bahrain for more than a decade through a front company listed as a commercial consulting firm.

Why it matters: The existence of the covert diplomatic mission in the Bahraini capital Manama shows the depth of a secret relationship that came out into the open with a White House ceremony last month.

  • The existence of the secret diplomatic office remained under an Israeli government gag order for 11 years. A short report about it appeared on Israel’s Channel 11 news last week.
  • Today, I'm reporting many more details based on conversations with Israeli and Bahraini sources, as well as Bahraini Commerce Ministry records.

The backstory: Negotiations over a potential secret diplomatic mission started in 2007-2008 through a series of secret meetings between Israel's then-foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, and her Bahraini counterpart, Khaled Bin Ahmad al-Khalifa.

  • Their close relationship, along with a decision by regional rival Qatar to shut down Israel's diplomatic mission in Doha, convinced the Bahrainis to approve the opening of a secret Israeli mission in Manama, Israeli officials say.

How it happened: On July 13, 2009, a company named “The Center for International Development” was registered in Bahrain. It was a front, providing cover for Israeli diplomacy.

  • According to Bahraini public records, the company offered marketing, commercial promotion and investment services.
  • The front company changed its name in 2013. We can’t disclose the current name for security reasons.
  • According to the company’s website, it provides consultancy services to Western companies interested in non-oil investments in the Gulf — mainly in the fields of medical technology, renewable energy, food security and IT.
  • The website claims the company's strong network of contacts in Bahrain and around the region helps it close deals.

How it worked: The front company was in fact hiring a very specific type of employee: Israeli diplomats with dual nationality.

  • One of the shareholders listed in public records is Brett Jonathan Miller — a South African national who was appointed in 2013 as Israel’s consul general in Mumbai.
  • A second shareholder, Ido Moed, is a Belgian national who today serves as the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s cyber coordinator.
  • On the company's board was Ilan Fluss, a British national and now the Israeli Foreign Ministry's deputy director general for the economy.
  • In 2018, the company appointed a new CEO — an American national whose name can't be revealed. He was recently replaced by another Israeli diplomat with dual nationality.
  • The Israeli diplomats all had cover stories, backed up by unconvincing LinkedIn profiles.

Behind the scenes: A small group of Bahraini officials was aware of the secret mission.

  • Several times over the last decade, concerns about possible leaks led to urgent damage control consultations between the countries to make sure the secret would remain secret.
  • Israeli officials tell me the secret mission really did promote hundreds of business deals struck by Israeli companies in Bahrain. It also served as a secret communications channel for the Israeli government.

What’s next: On Sunday in Manama, minutes after the signing of a joint communique on establishing diplomatic relations, an Israeli official handed the Bahraini Foreign Minister a note with a request to open a genuine embassy in Manama.

  • The infrastructure is already largely in place thanks to the secret mission, Israeli officials say.
  • "All we have to do is change the sign on the door," one told Axios.
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