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Bahraini FM : "Arab-Israel Dialogue Could Lead to Normalization"

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As regional leaders, international dignitaries and senior military officials convened at the seventh annual Manama Dialogue hosted by Bahraini King Hamad ibn Isa al Khalifa and the International Institute for Strategic Studies, participants engaged in a series of marathon talks addressing a plethora of issues ranging from maritime security, instability in Yemen to Iran's controversial nuclear program. While delegates all agreed to the urgency of strengthen regional security cooperation within the Gulf, Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid ibn Ahmad al Khalifa called on the Arab states to engage with Israel as he emphasized that "only through communications can normalization be reached." The senior diplomat stressed the need for dialogue with the Jewish state while underscoring that the 2003 Arab initiative remains available as an "invitation for peace," as opposed to a "take it or leave it" ultimatum. "We want peace. There is no question on whether Israel has a right to exist, we are serious. Period." Yet, on the other hand, the Sheik remained skeptical about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhu's intentions "as a lot of time has been wasted." Furthermore, echoing remarks issued by Jordanian King Abdullah at the Manama summit, the Bahraini foreign minister said that "it is up to the Israeli people to decide whether they want a democratic Israel or an apartheid state." But, "that does not prevent us from expressing our opinion, or try to influence one another, dialogue cannot always be with people one agrees with."

While some Israeli skeptics of the Saudi proposed initiative have argued that no Arab leader has so far been willing to make a bold effort to reach peace with Israel as President Anwar El-Sadat did in 1979, the Bahraini Sheik compared Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' return to direct negotiations to the decision made by the late Egyptian leader. "Abbas is sincere, we need more leaders like Sadat and [Jordanian] King Hussein in the Arab world today."

On the future of Israel and Iran, Khalid underscored that both nations are in the region to stay and that no conflict in the Middle East can be solved by others than the parties themselves. 'If all nations can be part of the UN, why cannot issues related to water cooperation, security and weapons of mass destruction be discussed in a regional forum?' The senior diplomat also called on external actors not to exploit the Palestinian issue.

In a 2009 Washington Post op-ed, Bahrain Crown Prince Shaikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa wrote: "Our biggest mistake has been to assume that you can simply switch peace on like a light bulb. The reality is that peace is a process, contingent on a good idea but also requiring a great deal of campaigning -- patiently and repeatedly targeting all relevant parties. This is where we as Arabs have not done enough to communicate directly with the people of Israel. An Israeli might be forgiven for thinking that every Muslim voice is raised in hatred, because that is usually the only one he hears. Just as an Arab might be forgiven for thinking every Israeli wants the destruction of every Palestinian."

As part of an effort to demonstrate tolerance and diversity, the minuscule island state off the Arabian Gulf appointed Houda Nonoo as the first Jewish women to represent Bahrain to the United States. Similarly, according to a prominent unnamed American Jewish leader participating in the regional security summit, Manama has since the mid 1990s conducted frequent talks with U.S. based Jewish groups over a host of issues ranging from the Middle East peace process to a strategic dialogue over the Iranian nuclear program.

Describing Jewish life in Bahrain, Ambassador Nonoo emphasized that since her family arrived in the mid 19th century from Iraq, Jews had always been treated fairly. "Only in London, I experienced xenophobia when I was called 'a bloody Arab."