President Donald Trump announced on September 11 that Bahrain would establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, following the United Arab Emirates, in another sign of shifting Middle East dynamics that are bringing Arab nations closer to Israel. President Trump announced the news on Twitter, releasing a joint statement with Bahrain and Israel and calling the move “a historic breakthrough to further peace in the Middle East.” Speaking to reporters, the President said the 9/11 attacks‘ anniversary was a fitting day for the announcement. “There’s no more powerful response to the hatred that spawned 9/11,” he said. The announcement came after a similar one last month by Israel and the United Arab Emirates that they would normalize relations on the condition that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel did not follow through with plans to annex portions of the West Bank. Trump administration officials said they hoped that agreement would encourage other Arab countries with historically hostile, though recently thawing, relations with Israel to take similar steps. The deal, which isolates the Palestinians, comes as Trump tries to position himself as a peacemaker before the elections in November.
Bahrain’s move was not unexpected. The tiny Persian Gulf kingdom was widely seen as the low-hanging fruit to be picked if all went well in the aftermath of the Emiratis’ announcement, analysts said. Bahrain, strategically significant as the home port for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, had already opened its airspace to new commercial passenger flights between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi. It was unclear whether the US or Israel had made any concessions to Bahrain in exchange for the agreement. When asked during a briefing for reporters, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, who helped broker the deal, did not respond directly.
Israel would always welcome the addition of another Arab country to the shortlist of those with diplomatic ties, but in Israel, the announcement landed with neither the surprise nor the weight of the Emirati decision. “Any Arab country is very important, for sure,” said Amos Gilead, a retired Israeli major general who leads the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “It’s another precedent. But with all due respect, when you are small, you are small.” But Bahrain has outsize significance, said Kirsten Fontenrose, a former National Security Council senior director for Gulf affairs in the Trump White House who is now a director at the Atlantic Council. She noted that Bahrain was a close ally of Saudi Arabia, the true diplomatic prize for Israel.“Its importance is mostly because it’s an indication that the new leadership in Saudi Arabia supports normalization,” Fontenrose said. “Bahrain doesn’t make a foreign policy move without Saudi Arabia’s express permission.”
On September 11, Jared Kushner called the Bahrain agreement “a historic breakthrough for President Donald Trump and also for the world.” President Trump boasted that “things are happening in the Middle East that nobody thought was even possible to think about.” But Democrats and many Middle East analysts called such a self-congratulatory tone hyperbolic, particularly given that Israel’s relations with the Gulf’s Sunni Arab governments had been warming for years, driven by a common animus toward Iran. For example, Bahrain was formerly part of Iran until Shah Mohammed Reza Pahalvi ceded control in 1971. Additionally, even though Bahrain is majority Shi’a, it is ruled by a Sunni monarchy and is involved in the ongoing Shi’a genocide throughout much of the Middle East. “This latest agreement by itself is an encouraging sign of progress in a region that has been racked with conflict and civil wars,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow and Middle East expert at the liberal Center for American Progress. “But it’s hard to credit the Trump administration with this deal.”
Israel and Bahrain have had unofficial ties on and off since the 1990s and enjoyed warm relations for several years. In 2019, Bahrain played host to a Trump administration conference promoting the economic aspects of its proposal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, during which Sheikh Khalid, a member of the Bahraini royal family who is now a diplomatic adviser to the king, gave friendly interviews to visiting Israeli journalists. “Israel is part of this heritage of this whole region, historically,” he said, adding that “the Jewish people have a place amongst us.”