By Ilan Ben Zion, WAPO
JERUSALEM — An interfaith group from the Gulf state of Bahrain is paying an unprecedented public visit to Israel this week, receiving a warm welcome but generating uproar across the Arab world.
The visit comes at a time when Israel is boasting of warming, albeit covert, ties with moderate Arab countries in a shared front against archrival Iran. But the heavy criticism unleashed on Arab social media, along with the low profile the group has taken, shows the limits on how far that goodwill can go.
The 25 participants, who include Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as well as Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, flew to Israel on Sunday as guests of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a U.S.-based Jewish human rights group. The group gathered Tuesday at a restaurant overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City walls for dinner and a candle-lighting ceremony marking the first night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
While organizers and participants said the three-day trip was nonpolitical and unconnected to the Bahrain government, it nonetheless is a possible test case for other Gulf Arab nations in seeing what could happen if they move toward recognizing Israel.
“People have been asking us, ‘Oh why have you been here now, after there was an announcement made by the White House,’” Betsy Mathieson, president of This is Bahrain, told The Associated Press, referring to President Donald Trump’s declaration last week that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The move enraged the Palestinians, who seek the city’s eastern half as capital of a future state.
“We have nothing to do with politics,” insisted Mathieson, a dual British-Bahrain national who has lived in Bahrain for 37 years.
But the early results seem decidedly mixed.
Shortly after the group arrived, it was forced to issue a statement on the state-run Bahrain News Agency that it “does not represent any official entity” in Bahrain after an uproar erupted on social media. People were especially angry that the visit came so close to Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem.
Throughout their time in Israel, the group, about half of whom are Bahrain citizens and the rest people of other nationalities who live in the Gulf nation, avoided the spotlight. Several Bahrainis chose not to attend Tuesday’s dinner, and those who did either refused to speak to the AP or did so only if they weren’t identified.
One Bahraini woman said she didn’t care about Trump’s proclamation, “because I am not a political person.” She said that unlike most Bahrainis, she sees no issue with Israel and Bahrain establishing bilateral relations, and would visit Israel again if the opportunity arose.
“If there’s a chance, why not?” said the woman, who like others demanded anonymity because of the controversy surrounding the visit. Earlier in the day, she prayed at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, which she described as “a dream.”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said the fact that the group arrived, defying expectations that they would cancel because of Trump’s move on Jerusalem, “speaks volumes.”
“We’re looking for the normalization. We’re not …read more