The significance of Bahrain’s action is partly that it wouldn’t have happened without the blessing of Saudi Arabia, which is joined by a causeway to the small Persian Gulf state. The Saudis have historically exercised what amounts to a veto over Bahraini policy. In this case, the Saudis silently endorsed their tiny neighbor’s decision, rather than vetoing it.
Kushner believes the Saudis are waiting to see how the normalization process plays out before making the move themselves. He thinks an eventual Saudi normalization is inevitable, if not imminent. The Saudis gave tacit approval to the UAE’s decision last month by publicly announcing they would allow commercial jets traveling between Israel and the Emirates to fly over Saudi territory.
President Trump will have a prized photo opportunity next week when he hosts Bahraini, UAE and Israeli leaders at a White House ceremony to celebrate the agreements. This shouldn’t be confused with a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement — which looks as far away today as ever — but it’s still a significant achievement.
Kushner noted the symbolism that the Bahrain agreement was announced on the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: “On 9/11, there is no stronger counter to extremism than bringing countries together for tolerance and peace.” That statement makes a good political sound bite in this election year, but it’s also true.
Bahrain took a first step toward Friday’s announcement when it hosted a meeting in June 2019 between Israeli and Arab leaders to discuss economic aspects of Kushner’s thus-far stalled plan for the Palestinians. Because of this earlier public engagement with Israel, Bahrain was seen as a likely next country to follow the UAE.
The administration is courting other Arab states to join the process. Brian Hook, the State Department official who has worked closely with Kushner on the normalization process, said the discussions are shaped by the fact that a younger generation of leaders — such as Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa — is taking power in the Arab world.
Sudan appears to be close: Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the ruling military council that replaced then-president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, is said to support an agreement with Israel now, but Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other political factions apparently aren’t convinced.
In Oman, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, who took the throne in January, has publicly supported the UAE-Israel deal and rebuffed Palestinian attempts to condemn the Emirates. Although Haitham is still gaining his footing, his country has already hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which makes an eventual move toward full normalization easier.
Morocco, which has a large Jewish population and for decades has maintained secret contacts with Israel, is another likely prospect. But the process is complicated by Morocco’s desire that the United States recognize its controversial claims of sovereignty in the contested Western Sahara region.
The dilemma for the Palestinians — whose suffering is largely ignored amid the celebrations of diplomatic progress — is how to influence a process that is accelerating despite their bitter opposition. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas failed to win Arab League endorsement this week for a resolution condemning the UAE normalization decision. That was another sign that Palestinians have lost their veto power over Arab decisions concerning Israel.
The decision by two wealthy Gulf countries to recognize Israel doesn’t help the shattered nations of the Middle East, such as Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Libya. And it doesn’t represent Middle East peace, whatever may be said at the White House next week. But for a region that sometimes seems to be in slow-motion collapse, it’s a building block for a better future.