By Tamara Nassar Activism and BDS Beat
An Israeli delegation canceled its participation in a conference in Bahrain after widespread protest against the planned visit.
Israel’s economy minister Eli Cohen was heading the 30-person delegation, which included Israeli government officials and business people.
They were set to participate in the Global Entrepreneurship Congress (GEC) conference in Bahrain this week.
Despite the announcement and the delegates page getting taken down from the conference’s official website, GEC never confirmed withdrawal of the Israeli delegation and “ignored all the queries of the Bahraini Society Against Normalization with Zionist Enemy,” according to the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC).
There are at least two Israeli speakers still registered on the official page of the conference.
Cohen cited “political issues” as the reason behind his delayed visit, Reuters news agency reported. An unnamed Israeli cabinet minister clarified to Reuters that those issues relate to Israel’s elections last week.
Israeli transport minister Yisrael Katz said Cohen’s cancelation was not due to security reasons, but that he “had to choose between traveling to Bahrain – a very important trip – and exploiting the election gains.”
Katz is in favor of normalizing relations between Israel and Arab states.
In November, the Israeli minister attended the International Road Transport Union in Oman at the official invitation of the Omani government, where he proposed a plan to build a regional transportation and rail network linking Gulf states to the Mediterranean via Israel.
Israel’s Channel 12 said that the delegation’s cancellation came after a militia group in Bahrain, Saraya Waad Allah, released a video threatening an attack on the Israeli delegation.
Campaign against Israeli participation
Activists in Bahrain launched a social media campaign calling for companies and individuals to boycott the conference upon learning of Israeli participation, using the hashtag “Bahrain against normalization.”
Some heeded calls by activists and pulled out of the conference:
One individual stated that her name was on the list of participants without her knowledge or consent.
The General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions also took part in the campaign against Israeli participation.
Delegations from Kuwait, Lebanon, Bahrain, Jordan, Palestine and Morocco all withdrew from the conference.
“The Zionist enemy employs normalization as an important tool in order to loosen its growing isolation and to change its image in the eyes of the Arabs as not their first enemy,” the BNC stated.
“However, despite these attempts, and despite its success in normalization with some Arab regimes, [Israel] has failed to whitewash its image in the minds of the people of our region, which, after 71 years of conflict, still consider it their first enemy.”
The BNC, the Palestinian civil society coalition that leads the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, called for ongoing pressure on the conference despite the announcement of Israeli withdrawal, citing the still scheduled participation of an Israeli speaker and calling for her expulsion if she showed up.
The BNC also called on the Bahraini parliament to pass legislation proposed by Bahraini civil society groups to prohibit normalization with Israel, and demanded other Arab parliaments do the same.
Resistance within the government
“Bahrain’s parliament announces that the people of Bahrain reject any Israeli presence on its territory and its lands and any decision allowing this presence is unacceptable,” Bahraini lawmakers said in a statement.
“The Bahraini people reject the presence of Zionists on the land of Bahrain, and also reject normalization in all its forms,” said MP Basem al-Maliki.
“Our position is firmly established in support of the Palestinian people and we cannot compromise on the Palestinian cause, no matter the price.”
The Bahraini government tried to distance itself from the decision to invite the Israeli delegation and pinned it on conference organizers.
“While we advised the Israeli delegation they would be welcome, they decided this morning not to come due to security concerns and a wish not to cause disruption for the other 180 nations participating,” said Jonathan Ortmans, president of Global Entrepreneurship Network, which is organizing the conference.
Bahrain on the way to formal relations
Bahrain has been at the forefront of normalization efforts between Gulf states and Israel, despite there being no official diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The island state’s foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa regularly tweets in defense of Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and against Iran.
Al Khalifa downplayed Israel’s oppression of Palestinians at the Warsaw conference hosted by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February.
“We grew up talking about the Palestine-Israel dispute as the most important issue,” he said in a video of a closed-door meeting at the conference that was leaked and then deleted by Netanyahu’s office.
“But then at a later stage, we saw a bigger challenge. We saw a more toxic one, in fact the most toxic in our modern history, which came from the Islamic Republic, from Iran.”
The video also showed officials from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates spewing invective against Iran and defending Israel.
In September 2017, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa denounced the Arab boycott of Israel and declared that citizens of his Gulf nation are allowed to visit Israel.
Hamad’s comments were made to Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, heads of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, during a visit to Bahrain’s capital Manama.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center is a far-right Zionist organization that aims to suppress the Palestine solidarity movement and smear critics of Israel’s human rights violations as anti-Semites.
Months before, Bahrain’s foreign minister approached Israel’s former foreign minister Tzipi Livni at the February 2017 Munich Security Conference to relay a message on behalf of Bahrain’s king, that he has decided to move towards normalization with Israel and wanted her to inform Netanyahu, according to a report by Barak Ravid for Israel’s Channel 10.
“The relationship between Israel and Bahrain has been going on for more than 25 years,” Ravid wrote.
Joint military exercises
Israel and the UAE participated in the Iniohos 2019 joint military exercises earlier this month hosted by Greece.
The Israeli air force has killed and injured thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, and the United Arab Emirates air force has done the same in Yemen.
The two forces have been participating in the same joint military exercises for the past two years, despite no formal diplomatic ties.
In July, Israeli media reported that the Israeli military hosted members of the United Arab Emirates armed forces.
The Israeli military denied those claims.
Saudi Arabia has been paving the way for normalization between Arab states and Israel, with a mutual enmity towards Iran at the core of this warming relationship.