By Aziz El Yaakoubi
DUBAI (Reuters) – A delegation from Israel that was due to attend a conference in Bahrain this week has pulled out due to security concerns, the organisers said on Sunday, after Bahrainis held an extensive campaign against the visit.
A spokeswoman for Israel’s Economy Minister Eli Cohen said his planned visit to Bahrain this week had been “delayed because of political issues”. Another Israeli cabinet minister said this referred to coalition talks after Israel’s election last week.
Israel and the Gulf Arab countries are in the midst of a diplomatic push aimed at forging an alliance against their common enemy Iran. Their efforts have become increasingly public after years of mostly covert contact due to strong opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
The group of around 30 Israeli business executives and government officials was scheduled to participate in a congress organised by the U.S.- based Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN) in Bahrain on April 15-18.
This prompted an outcry in Bahrain, with parliament joining calls on social media for the visit to be cancelled and some minor street protests held in Manama.
“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,” Jonathan Ortmans, GEN president, said in a statement.
A source close to the matter told Reuters that three Israeli speakers had cancelled because they were unable to obtain visas while the rest of the delegation had “decided not to go.”
The Bahraini government said the delegation had been invited at the sole initiative of the Global Entrepreneurship Network.
“Our responsibility is to ensure a safe and supportive environment for the attending delegations,” the government said in a statement.
However, acting Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who also holds the intelligence portfolio, denied that the cancellation of Cohen’s trip was due to security concerns.
“The head of the delegation is busy with political matters right now,” Katz told Israel’s Reshet 13 TV, referring to talks on a new coalition government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who won reelection in the April 9 ballot.
“Cohen had to choose between travelling to Bahrain – a very important trip – and exploiting the election gains.”
Last week a group of Bahraini lawyers tried unsuccessfully to get a court to stop immigration authorities from issuing visas to the delegation, while parliament condemned the visit.
“Bahrain’s parliament announces that the people of Bahrain rejects any Israeli presence on its territory and its lands and any decision allowing this presence is unacceptable,” lawmakers said in a statement.
Israel has formal diplomatic relations with only two Arab states, neighbouring Egypt and Jordan.
But an Israeli cabinet minister visited Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque last year and fellow Gulf state Oman hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a surprise trip, the first time an Israeli leader had visited the Sultanate in 22 years.
(Reporting By Aziz El Yaakoubi; Additional reporting by Tova Cohen in Tel Aviv and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)