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Prominent Bahraini royal to ToI: Netanyahu is an obstacle to better relations | The Times of Israel

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Three months after Bahrain hosted US's economic peace meet

Prominent Bahraini royal to ToI: Netanyahu is an obstacle to better relations

Upset at ‘bully tactics’ against Israeli Arabs, sheikh says ‘Bibi will sell his soul to win’; calls PM’s pledge to annex Jordan Valley a ‘watershed’ for peace hopes in the region

By Ben Birnbaum 14 September 2019, 7:20 pm 4 Edit
Illustrative: In this June 25, 2019, photo released by Bahrain News Agency, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, fifth from left, and Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, sixth from left, listen to White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, standing, during the opening session of the "Peace to Prosperity" workshop in Manama, Bahrain (Bahrain News Agency via AP)

A leading member of the royal family of Bahrain blasted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend, saying that Netanyahu had emerged as an obstacle to better relations with the Jewish state and that Tuesday’s elections would be “boom or bust” for the prospects of Arab-Israeli peace.

The member of the Al-Khalifa clan, who requested anonymity to speak candidly on a sensitive subject, told The Times of Israel in a telephone interview that 90 percent of his family members and other Bahraini decision-makers held a strongly unfavorable view of the Israeli premier and that even those who did not weren’t exactly his fans.

“Anybody who is somebody in Bahrain has some level of contempt for Netanyahu,” he said.

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He sharply criticized the premier’s stated intention to annex the Jordan Valley if re-elected, calling it a “watershed in the future of any amicable peace treaty for the region” and saying that such an action would be “the final nail in the coffin” for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a map of the Jordan Valley, vowing to extend Israeli sovereignty there if re-elected, during a speech in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

He also condemned the escalation of the Netanyahu campaign’s “bully tactics” against Israel’s Arab minority, including its Facebook message to supporters that “Arabs want to annihilate us all — men, women, and children.”

“Bibi will sell his soul to win,” he charged.

The sheikh’s comments come less than three months after Bahrain hosted the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity Workshop,” during which the kingdom’s foreign minister Sheikh Khalid Al-Khalifa granted an unprecedented interview to The Times of Israel, and three days after Al-Khalifa and his counterparts gathered in Cairo and condemned Netanyahu’s Jordan Valley announcement.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa speaks with the Times of Israel on the sidelines of the Peace to Prosperity workshop in Manama, Bahrain, on June 26, 2019. (Courtesy)

The Bahraini foreign ministry issued its own statement on the move, saying that it “proves Israel’s keenness on obstructing the efforts to reach a just and comprehensive peace.”

In recent years, Bahrain and other Gulf countries have signaled greater openness to Israel amid a growing alignment of interests vis-à-vis Iran and its proxies throughout the region. The two nations’ foreign ministers met publicly in Washington recently and posed for a photo. However, given the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, that rapprochement has not breached certain limits. It was widely reported that Netanyahu unsuccessfully sought to arrange a visit to Bahrain before the April election.

The sheikh said that regional challenges — not just on security, but on environmental and economic issues — were such that “we need everyone on board, including Israel, but we’re not going to jump in bed with Israel before there’s a substantial peace offer on the table that is acceptable to a majority of the Arab world, and most importantly the Palestinians.”

The sheikh said that Bahrain still desired a warm peace with Israel, in the context of a comprehensive regional peace agreement, and spoke of mutual opportunities in tourism, trade, and investment. He referred repeatedly to the Saudi-led 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which promised Israel full normalization with all Arab countries in the context of a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

“I think after seventy years, it’s time,” he said. “The countries of the Gulf have nothing personal against the Israeli population or nothing against Jews.” He pointed to the country’s small Jewish minority, noting that its members continued to play a significant role in government, parliament, and the economy.”

He said that he was sympathetic to Israeli concerns about an independent Palestinian homeland and that any peace agreement would have to contain many security arrangements to ensure such a state did not threaten Israel.

“We start with the first three points: Israel is here to stay, Israel has the right to exist, Israel has the right to its security — and there should be no compromise on these three points. Once we get that out of the way, the Palestinians should be able to establish their own homeland and live a dignified life.”

But he hit back at the suggestion, promoted by Netanyahu and others, that Bahrain and other Gulf countries would normalize relations with Israel in the absence of a serious peace process involving the Palestinians. “That I can bet you 1000% would never happen,” he said.

US President Donald Trump, right, holds a bilateral meeting with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

He clarified that, while he and other Gulf figures were generally more sympathetic to the Trump administration than to the Obama administration — largely due to its more hawkish line on Iran — they were not enthusiastic about its policy on Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“We’re skeptical about the recent economic efforts without seeing a final road map on the political front,” he said.

He compared Netanyahu unfavorably with previous Israeli prime ministers, whom he said showed a greater interest in peace. “We did have a honeymoon period before,” he said. “The Ehud Baraks and Yitzhak Rabins are not there with us anymore.”

He said he regretted the “missed opportunities” in the Camp David and Taba peace talks of 2000 and 2001, during which Yasser Arafat rejected Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state on 97 percent of the West Bank and Gaza.

“Yasser Arafat made so many mistakes,” he said. “He was encouraged by the Arab countries to accept.”

While emphasizing that he was speaking personally, not on behalf of the government, the sheikh said that if — and only if — a future Palestinian leader rejected a similarly far-reaching offer, Bahrain and other Arab states might reserve the option to set their own course with Israel.

“The time has come maybe for us to say, ‘that is enough,’” he said. “Show us a good peace deal that we feel should be acceptable to a significant number of Palestinians and their leaders, and if they don’t accept it, each Arab country should be able to make its own decision on how to move forward.”

But he was pessimistic any such process would move forward under Netanyahu.

“A new era needs a new leader,” he said.

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