By Dan Williams
MANAMA (Reuters) -Bahrain agreed to step up cooperation with Israel on Tuesday, hosting a first visit by its leader Naftali Bennett that highlighted an increasing Israeli presence in the Gulf amid high tensions with regional power Iran.
Bennett concluded a two-day visit to Manama, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and several international naval task forces, in a first by any Israeli leader following the 2020 normalisation of bilateral relations.
The two governments agreed on a process of building a bilateral plan dubbed the “Warm Peace Strategy” that would prioritize several sectors including food security, water, sustainable energy, trade and investment, a statement issued by Bennett’s office said. The two countries also agreed to expedite negotiations on a joint tax treaty.
Bennett described his trip as a chance to forge a common stand against Iran and its allies including Yemen’s Houthis, whose attacks on the United Arab Emirates this year jarred the oil-producing region.
“We are trying to form a new regional architecture of moderate countries (to) provide stability, economic prosperity and to be able to stand strong against enemies who are fomenting chaos and terror,” Bennett told reporters.
The U.S. Navy is considering adding unmanned Israeli boats to its joint Middle East operations, a U.S. official said earlier in the day, a move that could deepen Israel’s military involvement in the Gulf and further anger Tehran.
Israel is due to become the 29th country to post an attache to the Fifth Fleet’s Manama headquarters, officials said, adding the as-yet unnamed envoy would likely be of navy captain or commander rank.
“It’s about keeping the lines of communication open” bilaterally between Israel and the fleet, a U.S. official said, referring to the plan to station the envoy in the Gulf kingdom.
Israel has not formally confirmed the appointment.
Bennett told Fleet chief Vice Admiral Brad Cooper at a meeting on Tuesday that he expected “the cooperation among the region’s countries and powerful ally the United States will keep getting closer”, the prime minister’s office said.
The U.S. official said the Fifth Fleet was examining dozens of unmanned vessels as part of current Gulf exercises, and it was interested in Israeli-made surface drones as possible complements to flying and underwater drones.
“The Israelis are definitely vested in leveraging this technology,” the official said, adding that a fleet commander had in recent weeks visited Haifa in Israel to study the surface drones.
An Israeli military spokeswoman had no immediate comment.
In November, forces from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Israel and the Bahrain-based U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) took part in a security exercise in the Red Sea, the first publicly acknowledged naval exercise between the United States, Israel and its two new Gulf friends.
Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa has accepted an invitation to visit Israel, the Gulf state’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani said, adding the trip should happen in “the near future”.
“Iranian nuclear file and terrorism” were part of the discussions, Zayani told reporters.
Sunni Muslim-ruled Bahrain accuses Shi’ite Muslim Iran of stoking unrest in the kingdom, a charge Tehran denies.
Bahraini opposition activists said on Tuesday at least four people had been arrested during protests on Monday held in several Shi’ite villages to oppose Bennett’s visit. Bahrain’s government communications office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Bennett met with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, government ministers and members of Bahrain’s Jewish community on Tuesday. In a town hall with Bahraini civil servants and journalists, Bennett stressed the need to increase trade and other links.
“We don’t have enough trade, we don’t have enough tourism – and that is what this visit is all about,” Bennett said.
“I’m going to be your ambassador there (in Israel). I want to ‘sell Bahrain’,” he added.
Bahrain, a small island state striving to fix its heavily indebted finances, is a close ally of Saudi Arabia – with which Israel has no formal relationship.
(Reporting by Dan Williams with additional reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi in Riyadh Writing by Lisa Barrington and Raya JalabiEditing by William Maclean/Mark Heinrich)