Bahrain Sides With Israel Against Iran

Iran launched dozens of rockets at Israel yesterday, causing little damage thanks to Israel's missile defense system. In retaliation, Israel targeted Iran's ability to operate in Syria. While this military confrontation is huge news, a Twitter message from an Arab diplomat may prove comparably important.

On Thursday, Bahrain diplomat Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa declared that the state of Israel has a right to defend itself against the Islamic Republic of Iran. "As long as Iran has breached the status quo in the region and has evacuated its troops and missiles, any state in the region, including Israel, is entitled to defend itself by destroying the sources of danger," Al Khalifa tweeted.

This is extremely significant, because Bahrain is among the Arab countries that have never recognized Israel's right to exist. Now, not only did Al Khalif acknowledge Israel's existence, but he defended the Jewish state's right to defend itself against a Muslim country.

While officially Muslim and with a legal system based on sharia (Islamic law), Bahrain is a large tourist destination, and it has a large population of non-Muslims in the country (mostly foreigners). Shiites, the minority across the Muslim world, make up 66-70 percent of Bahraini Muslims. Even so, the ruling family is Sunni and quashes dissent with an iron hand.

Bahrain and Iran have a tortured history, as Bahraini Shiites attempted a coup in Iran after the Islamic Revolution. Iran has also laid claim to Bahrain in the past.

This Arab country has a representative parliament, with women being granted the right to vote. Even so, repression has increased since 2007, and Bahrain was heavily criticized for brutal crackdowns on protesters in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Media can be prosecuted for undermining the regime.

While Jews make up a tiny minority of Bahrain's population, their rights are respected — although political cartoons around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have often mocked them.

While Israel came into existence in 1948, the first Israeli delegation did not visit Bahrain until September 1994. In October 2007, Al Khalifa himself held a meeting with the American Jewish Committee. Even in that event, he declared, "Palestinian refugees should return to Palestine," effectively denying Israel's existence. In the same month, he met with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, drawing criticism from the Bahraini parliament.

Amid the Arab Spring uprising, WikiLeaks published in Haaretz hidden relations between Bahraini and Israeli officials. In February 2005, Bahrain's king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa bragged about having contact with Israel's national intelligence agency, Mossad. He also indicated that Bahrain may develop relations with the Jewish state in other fields as well.

The king reportedly gave orders for phrases like "enemy" and "Zionist entity" to be removed from official statements referring to Israel, but he rejected the idea of opening trade relations with the Jewish state.

Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa's tweet suggests Bahrain might consider a full alignment with Israel. A U.S. rabbi who visited the Persian Gulf earlier this year reported that this country might diplomatically recognize the Jewish state in two years. Bahrain is loosely allied with Saudi Arabia, although it often plays a moderating role in regional politics.

While it seems unlikely other Arab countries will follow Bahrain's lead in recognizing Israel's right to defend itself against Iran, Al Khalifa's tweet is significant in terms of breaking the Overton Window. The idea that an Arab country would defend Israel's right to exist was rather unthinkable before Thursday. Now that it has happened, more Arab-Israeli cooperation is possible.