Tiny Bahrain must balance Gulf state sentiments over US peace plan

Tiny Bahrain must balance Gulf state sentiments over US peace plan
© BANDAR ALDANDANI/AFP/Getty Images

In a speech celebrating the end of Ramadan, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei accused Bahrain and Saudi Arabia of being traitors to the Palestinian cause, and bashed Bahrain for its hosting a conference scheduled later this month at which the U.S. will introduce President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally MORE’s peace plan dubbed “the deal of the century.” Bahrain now finds itself in the middle of one of the Middle East’s most contentious disputes.

The rulers of Bahrain, along with Saudi Arabia, Khamenei said, will be walking into a quagmire by setting the stage for what he called Washington’s “evil plot.”

Harsh language by the Iranian regime towards its Arab neighbors isn’t unusual; Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in a regional struggle for influence and power. On May 24, President Trump sidestepped Congress to allow an $8 billion sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Jordan amid rising tensions with Iran. The U.S. also accused Iran of being behind the sabotage of four oil tankers anchored off the UAE on May 12. The leaders of Arab and Islamic countries gathered in Mecca on June 1 to address Iran’s threats.

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The U.S. selected Bahrain as the site for its “economic workshop” that is supposed to lay the groundwork for the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that is being rolled out this summer after a year of postponements. Bahrain is a unique choice for the economic leg of the deal, but it also poses risks for the kingdom. The smallest of the Gulf states, Bahrain is a key ally of Saudi Arabia. In 2011, it was rocked by the Arab Spring, and Saudi Arabia intervened to stop protests from spreading. Unlike most of the Gulf states with primarily Sunni Arab populations, Bahrain has a sizable Shi’ite population and a tiny Jewish minority.

Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa denounced Arab boycotts of Israel in 2017. Bahrainis visited Jerusalem, and Israeli officials hinted at the establishment of diplomatic relations after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman last fall. But in April 2019, an Israeli delegation cancelled a visit to Bahrain after the local parliament objected. This shows the precarious position Bahrain is in — and also why it is an ideal location for the U.S.-led economic confab.

Officially, Bahrain supports a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict that would create a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in Jerusalem. Bahrain in 2005 hosted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, met with Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in 2008. Bahrain also has offered the Palestinians financial support.

The summit in Bahrain, planned for June 25-26, was announced in May. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said the Palestinian Authority was not consulted and called the conference was a “conspiracy” against Palestinians. Other Palestinian groups urged a boycott of the event.

But White House adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerDemocrats ask OSC to review whether Kushner violated Hatch Act Democrats ask OSC to review whether Kushner violated Hatch Act Financial disclosure form shows Ivanka Trump earned M from DC Trump hotel MORE and Jason Greenblatt, the special representative for international negotiations, reportedly remain hopeful. They met the Bahrainis in February to secure support, and got Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on board to back the workshop.

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The challenge for the U.S. is three-sided. The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has given Washington the cold shoulder over recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last year. Iran backs Hamas in Gaza. The Gulf states are divided, with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE opposing Qatar’s policies. Angriest of all is Iran, which wants to sabotage the conference to boost its own credentials as a supporter of the Palestinian cause.

The U.S. hopes the Bahrain venue may attract support from essential states such as Jordan, which is home to millions of Palestinians and a custodian of the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. That is likely why Kushner and Greenblatt went to Jordan and Morocco before their trip to Israel on May 29.

The Trump administration also got positive notes from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, who will attend the conference. What Bahrain, its supporters and Washington now must do is convince the Palestinian leadership to change their tune. If the U.S. can come out of the Bahrain conference with an attractive economic incentive, it might be too important for the Palestinian leadership to continue to boycott.

It will be hard for Abbas to walk back from harsh comments about the White House plan. Ramallah’s recalcitrance could be good news for Israel, demonstrating to Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia that Israel is more reasonable on this topic than the Palestinian leaders.

Seth J. Frantzman spent three years in Iraq and other countries in the region researching the war on terror and Islamic State. He is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever” (Gefen Publishing). Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.