MANAMA (Reuters) – Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid flew to Bahrain on Thursday on the highest-level Israeli visit to the Gulf state since the countries established formal relations last year.
Lapid, who landed at Bahrain’s international airport in an Israir plane with an olive branch painted on its nose, will inaugurate Israel’s embassy in Manama and hold talks with his Bahraini counterpart.
Bahrain and Gulf neighbour United Arab Emirates normalised relations with Israel last year in a U.S.-brokered deal known as the Abraham Accords that built on shared business interests and worries about Iran. Sudan and Morocco followed suit.
“We see Bahrain as an important partner, on the bilateral level but also as a bridge to cooperate with other countries in the region,” the spokesperson said.
The accords had been denounced by the Palestinians as abandoning a unified position under which Arab states would make peace only if Israel gave up occupied land.
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In Gaza, the Islamist Hamas group criticised Bahrain for hosting Lapid, who returns to Israel on Thursday evening. Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said this represented “an encouragement” of what he described as Israeli “crimes against our Palestinian people and their sacred sites”.
The accords have also been criticised by Bahraini opposition figures, speaking largely from abroad, as well as locals who stand against normalisation.
The island state, which quashed an uprising led mostly by Shi’ite Muslim members of its population in 2011, saw some sporadic acts of protest after the pact was signed.
On Thursday Bahraini activists circulated on social media images of what appeared to be small protests in Bahrain, including some tire burnings. Reuters was unable to independently verify these.
The Sunni-ruled kingdom, host to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, accuses Iran of stoking unrest in Bahrain, a charge that Tehran denies.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said five memorandums of understanding will be signed, including cooperation agreements between hospitals and water and power companies.
“The main areas in which Bahrain is looking for cooperation have to do with the economy and technology, and a few of the MOUs that will be signed (on Thursday) will be about that,” a ministry spokesperson said, without elaborating.
He said 12 memorandums of understanding have been signed so far between the two countries, among them deals relating to transportation, agriculture, communication and finance.
Bahrain’s Gulf Air is due to make its first direct commercial flight to Tel Aviv later in the day.
(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller, Nidal Al Mughrabi and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Giles Elgood, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, William Maclean)
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