Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, left, welcomed by Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani in Manama, Feb. 14, 2022. (AP/Ilan Ben Zion) Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, left, welcomed by Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani in Manama, Feb. 14, 2022. (AP/Ilan Ben Zion)
Bahrain

Surprise visit is first by an Israeli prime minister to Bahrain.

By Ilan Ben Zion, Associated Press

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett landed in the Gulf state of Bahrain on Monday, cementing ties between the new allies in a clear message of cooperation aimed at regional archrival Iran.

Bennett’s lightning trip to the Gulf is the first public visit by an Israeli prime minister to Bahrain and comes less than two weeks after the countries signed a defense agreement with an eye on rising tensions in the Gulf.

The memorandum of understanding includes a provision for the first Israeli military officer be permanently stationed in an Arab country.

The visit also comes as nuclear talks between world powers and Iran are dragging on in Vienna.

Israel and Bahrain agreed to normalize ties in 2020 as part of the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords, which also saw Israel establish relations with the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Sudan. Bennett traveled to the UAE late last year.

Speaking to reporters before departing Israel, Bennett said he would meet with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and others “to fill with energy and content the peace agreements between the two nations.”

“I think especially in these tumultuous times, it is important that from this region we send the message of goodwill, of cooperation, of standing together against common challenges and of building bridges to the future,” he said.

Bennett was greeted in Bahrain by an honor guard and the country’s foreign minister, Abdullatif al-Zayani.

Overshadowing Bennett’s trip to Bahrain are rising regional tensions. The U.S. and Israel have accused Iran of attacking commercial shipping in the Gulf, and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have recently launched missile strikes against the UAE.

Israel has stepped up its naval presence in the Red Sea, a critical artery for world trade and Israeli strategic interests.

Israel, along with its new Gulf allies, is watching closely as diplomats from the United Kingdom, Germany, France, China and Russia are currently negotiating with Iran in the Austrian capital over its nuclear program. American diplomats are indirectly involved in the talks.

Israel has said it will not be bound by any international agreement concerning Iran’s nuclear program, and says it is prepared to take military action if needed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms. Iran insists its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.

Bahrain and the UAE have long nurtured clandestine security cooperation with Israel over their mutual enmity toward Iran.

United With Israel staff contributed to this report.