The rabbis’ revelation of the king’s opinion shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, however. Arab nations slowly have inched closer to Israel in recent years, in part because both sides remain incredibly suspicious of Iran’s intentions as the wars in Iraq and Syria wind down.
Bahrain may prove to be the test case for other Gulf Arab nations about coming out of the closet about their mutual interests. It also allows the kingdom, still silent about the rabbis’ comments, to draw attention away from its internal crackdown on dissent, which largely targets its Shiite majority.
Bahrain, an island nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia connected by a 25-kilometer (15.5-mile) causeway, long has been known as more libertine than its ultraconservative neighbor. Its bars and nightclubs attract cross-border traffic, as well as sailors based there with the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
The island also hosts a small Jewish community, whose presence occasionally makes waves. An online video last year from Bahrain during Hanukkah caused a minor stir when it showed yarmulke-wearing Jews dancing with Arabs in traditional robes and kaffiyeh headdresses.
In February, Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa hosted the two rabbis from the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, its founder Marvin Hier and associate dean Abraham Cooper. Hier, who had just given a prayer at President Donald Trump’s inauguration weeks earlier, said King Hamad brought up the Arab boycott of Israel on his own.
The king “said he doesn’t understand what the boycott against Israel accomplishes. He made it very, very clear. He said it emphatically,” Hier told The Associated Press. “He said we have to chart a new course, one based on tolerance and dignity, and that this was very important.”
Cooper, who spoke separately to the AP, offered a similar recollection.
“During the course of the meeting, the king brought up his personal opposition to the Arab boycott of Israel,” he said. “He brought it up. It’s not an issue we did.”
That conversation only got mentioned publicly in the last week, when the Simon Wiesenthal Center hosted King Hamad’s son, Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa. While there, the prince promoted a declaration signed by the king and announced Bahrain planned to open an “interfaith dialogue” center in November.
Bahrain’s government, whose state media extensively covered Prince Nasser’s visit , did not respond to requests for comment. That in itself is not surprising. The newly formed Arab League opposed the creation of Israel after World War II and opposed recognizing it following the 1967 Mideast War. League members Egypt and Jordan each later made separate peace with Israel.
At the heart of the Arab nations’ dispute with Israel remains the creation of a Palestinian state and its withdrawal from occupied territory.
In recent years though, Arab nations, particularly in the Gulf, have become increasingly worried about Iran’s growing regional influence following the nuclear deal with world powers and its military presence in Iraq and Syria. That’s put them on the side of Israel, which points to Iranian leaders’ constant call for the destruction of the Jewish state.
“There’s a big bully in the equation. People are afraid (if) that big bully, Iran, acquires nuclear weapons what that will do to the region,” Hier said. “I think everyone has that same fear and the king is thinking how to get out of that quandary before it becomes too late and too dangerous.”
Just this week, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi even held a public meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, smiling for the cameras. Bahrain’s move likely also would have the tacit approval of Saudi Arabia, as the oil-rich kingdom provides it needed financial support.
Bahrain’s embrace of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and interfaith dialogue, however, comes as it engages in a fierce crackdown targeting journalists, activists, Shiite religious leaders and political parties. Independent news gathering there has grown more difficult, with the government refusing to accredit two Associated Press reporters and others.
The suppression is at a level unseen since 2011, when its Shiite majority and others demonstrated as part of the wider Arab Spring, asking its Sunni rulers for reforms. Government forces, with help from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, crushed the uprising.
An official investigation after the protests found the government demolished 30 Shiite religious structures following the demonstrations, ranging from mosques to meeting halls and shrines. The report noted that while many lacked proper permits, the timing of their destruction “would be perceived as a collective punishment.” Activists at the time put the number of destroyed Shiite structures even higher.
Sheikh Maytham al-Salman, a Shiite cleric from Bahrain who works on trying to foster interfaith understanding himself, expressed skepticism about the government’s new push.
“I believe the launch of an interfaith center is an attempt to deflect international criticism on the persecution of the Shiite majority in the country,” said Sheikh Maytham, who also investigated the destruction of Shiite buildings in 2011. “How can the government of Bahrain internationally promote dialogue while refusing to open the doors for dialogue and reconciliation locally?”