Bahraini leaders reach out to native Jews, Israel

When Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa met this month in New York with about 50 Bahraini Jews who had immigrated to the United States, he did something almost unheard of in the Arab world: He invited them home.

“It’s open, it’s your country,” King Hamad told the group. The offer extended to younger generations and even included specifics, including allocation of land for homes.

Bahrain, the little Persian Gulf nation whose pluralism has been the exception to the region’s hegemonic rule, is softly encouraging the U.S.-led push for democratization in the Middle East as the means toward stabilization. And its rulers have made their treatment of the tiny Jewish community in Bahrain a showcase of how to achieve peaceful pluralism.

In a region where efforts to export ideology have often exploded into conflict, Bahraini officials are careful to say that they are pleased only to serve as an example, not as a beachhead.

“What we do in Bahrain is for sure for Bahrain — it’s not to be exported,” Hamad said in an interview.

Yet it is clear that the nation, host to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and a major non-NATO ally of the United States, regards the Bush administration’s efforts to democratize the region as being in keeping with its own reforms. Bahrain officials subtly hint that the U.S. push for democracy in the region is playing catch-up to a country that launched a transition to constitutional monarchy in 1999.

“Our reforms were before Sept. 11,” Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, the Bahraini foreign minister and a relative to the king, said in an interview. “The American democratic program for the Middle East came after Sept. 11. They thought that extremism is linked to lack of freedom and democracy. Well, fine, we agree with that.”

Taking the lead in reaching out to Israel and to Jews internationally is part of the equation. Last year, the nation ended its participation in the Arab League boycott of Israel, something al-Khalifa is still called to defend before the Bahraini parliament.

“I said, we are democratizing, why should we tell people what to do or not to do?” the foreign minister recalled. “If they don’t want to buy something, it’s up to them. This boycott office is really contrary to our philosophy.”

Al-Khalifa cast such thinking as critical to bringing peace to the region, especially ahead of Israeli elections in February that could return hawks to power.

“We need to comfort and put the Israeli mind, citizens, at peace when he goes to the ballot box, that there are partners, not only [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas, but others in the region,” al-Khalifa said.

The foreign minister recently proposed a regional grouping that would include Iran and Israel even before agreements are in place as a means to reaching accommodation. Such a grouping would start by dealing with the removal of weapons of mass destruction, sharing diminishing water supplies and cooperating on environmental controls.

“We need to lay these foundations for the future,” al-Khalifa said. “Israel is there to stay, Iran is there to stay.”

Practical considerations underpin Bahrain’s outreach: The kingdom’s oil wealth is expected to dry up within the next two decades, and the nation needs new strategies to thrive in the region. Quitting the Arab boycott was a condition of a free-trade pact with the United States, and a peaceful neighborhood would help move development along, al-Khalifa said.

Bahrain’s tiny Jewish community — slightly less than 100 in a population of about 800,000 — is descended from Iraqi Jews who sought opportunities in the 19th century British Empire. Before the creation of Israel in 1948, some 600 Jews lived in Bahrain. After Israeli’s War of Independence in 1948, some immigrated, mostly to the United States and Britain.

The island’s smallness also contributes to its all-for-one ethos. Meeting with the Bahraini Jews this month, the king recognized, without prompting, the children of Bahraini Jews with whom he grew up.

Hamad’s acceptance for his country’s Jews has spilled over into the political arena: He appointed a Jewish woman, Houda Nonoo, as ambassador to the United States, and named another, Rose Sager, as U.S. trade representative.

At the meeting in New York, the affection of his Jewish subjects seemed unforced. Many were eager to hear details of his repealing of a law that had stripped expatriate Bahrainis of their citizenship.

“I would like to visit Bahrain and see my friends, my brother and my sister,” said Vilma Darwish, a Bahrain native who had not been back in 46 years. “They never persecuted them.”

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief