The head of the Israeli delegation in Bahrain concludes his tenure: "Relations deprive Iranians of sleep"
Itai Tegner ends a significant tenure, during which relations between the two countries became official following the historic agreement signed.
From the announcement from his Foreign Ministry executives to leave immediately for Manama, through political, security and economic achievements to Iran: "Sometimes I still pinch myself when I look around here"
United Arab Emirates
Friday, 26 November 2021, 22:51 Updated: 23:31
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On September 15, 2020, Israeli diplomat Itai Tegner sat at the home of a Bahraini friend in Manama and watched a 70-inch screen at the signing ceremony of the Avraham agreements held at the White House.
For long minutes his Bahraini friend was concentrated on his cell phone screen rather than at the ceremony.
When Stegner tried to figure out what the matter was, the Bahraini friend showed him a photo of the advance he had placed two years earlier on a space flight in 2024. "Until two weeks ago, I was sure I would reach space before I arrived in Israel," the Bahraini friend told him.
For Tegner, this moment tells the story of the dramatic change that has taken place in the region over the past year.
For the past 15 months, during which he was in charge of the Israeli mission in Manama, Tegner has shifted relations between Israel and Bahrain from a secret alliance that takes place in the shadows to full diplomatic relations that are celebrated in front of the cameras.
He was Israel's last secret representative and also Israel's first official representative in the tiny Gulf kingdom.
This week he will end his term and symbolically also hand over the baton to Israel's first ambassador to Bahrain, Eitan Na'a.
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Ir Lapid in meeting with King of Bahrain, Hemed bin Issa al-Khalifa (Photo: Government Press Office, Oz Avital)
I'm lucky - I was in the right place at the right time, "Tegner told me when I met him last weekend at the Four Seasons Hotel in the northwestern tip of Bahrain where a" Manama Dialogue "was held - an annual security conference. It was a very successful end to his tenure there. He hosted National Security Adviser Il Hulta who came to the conference. Hulta spent three days in Manama and together they held meetings with all the Bahraini leadership. Hulta was the most senior Israeli official to visit Bahrain after Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and he was received in the kingdom very naturally and warmly.
Tegner, from the Shimshit settlement in the Jezreel Valley, is not a typical diplomat. He came to the Foreign Ministry only at the age of 40. For a few years in management positions at Cellcom but then came the Second Lebanon War. Tegner was drafted into the paratroopers' reserve and for weeks he and his soldiers tried to hunt down rocket launchers in southern Lebanon. "I came back very worried about the war when it comes to the way the country is run, and I decided to take it to a place of making change," he says. "I informed my Cellcom executives that I was leaving. They thought I was in battle shock."
After a few months, Tegner found himself at work in Rwanda. One day he met by chance Foreign Ministry Director General Ron Proshour and told him the story of his life. "If you want to do something significant come to the Foreign Ministry," Proshour told him. Tegner decided to return to Israel to join the cadet course. His first mission abroad. L was in India. He then served at the embassy in Berlin. In 2016, after the Brazilian government refused to accept Danny Dayan as Israel's ambassador, he was sent to Brazil as interim commissioner. In 2019, he was appointed the Foreign Ministry's energy envoy - a position that revealed to him some of the secret relations of the State of Israel in the Arab world.
In August 2020, shortly after the dramatic announcement by the White House of the normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Tegner received a phone call from his executives at the Foreign Ministry.
The feeling then was that a similar agreement with Bahrain was a matter of weeks and perhaps of days only and they asked Tagner to leave Manama immediately.
Israel and Bahrain did not have open diplomatic relations at the time, but there was a secret relationship in which a secret Israeli representation was established in Manama a decade earlier.
Less than 50 people in Bahrain, Israel and the United States knew about its existence. "When I came here I knew nothing about Bahrain.
It was an adventure, "he recalls." I still sometimes pinch myself when I look around here. "
The signing ceremony of Avraham's agreements in the White House (Photo: AP)
On the evening of Friday, September 11, 2020, exactly 29 days after the original declaration of the "Abraham Agreements", another announcement was made - Bahrain joins the United Arab Emirates and normalizes relations with Israel. After the solemn ceremony at the White House the real work began. Tegner focused most of his work on preparing the official agreement to be signed by Israel and Bahrain. In Jerusalem they wanted to sign a peace treaty as they did with the United Arab Emirates. But the Bahraini responded in the negative. There was concern in Israel that something had gone wrong, but then the message came from the Bahraini: there is no need to sign a peace agreement because there has never been a war between us. Finally, an agreement was signed in Manama on October 18 to establish full diplomatic relations between the two countries.
"We understood from the beginning that the UAE and Bahrain are two completely different relationships. With different expectations. Different capabilities. Doing business differently. Not all Arabs are the same and each country has different characteristics," says Tegner.
One of the different things was the cool attitude in some of Bahrain's public opinion towards the agreement with Israel.
When Secretary of State Abd al-Latif al-Ziani returned from the White House ceremony in Washington in mid-September, one of the first things he did after briefing the king and heir to the throne was a hearing in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
He heard quite a few difficult questions about the agreement with Israel.
Even today, parts of the Bahraini public still do not support normalization with Israel.
Tegner claims that this is one of Israel's biggest challenges.
"It is a gradual process. There have been many years of education against Israel," he says.
"On the other hand, there is also a great curiosity towards Israel and a willingness to go very far. Now we need to fill this relationship with content."
Some members of the public still do not support the normalization, Bennett and the heir to the throne of Bahrain (Photo: Government Press Office, Haim Tzach)
After the establishment of diplomatic relations, one of the dilemmas was what to focus on - the common threats or the common opportunities. "Obviously it was easiest to focus on threats and especially on the Iranian issue but we decided not to base the relationship on that because then we would completely miss the size of the hour," Tagner notes. The first leg in the new relationship was representations. In place of the offices of the Secret Representation, the offices of the Israeli Embassy were opened on the 29th floor of the iconic building of the World Trade Center in Manama. The embassy has been openly operating since November 2020 but was officially inaugurated in September this year during Foreign Minister Lapid's visit. The Bahraini embassy in Israel opened last August.
The second leg touched on civil relations between the parties. Most of the work has focused on the final abolition of all restrictions on relations with Israel as part of the boycott of Israel law that has been in the country for years.In 2003, the repeal of the boycott law began, but when diplomatic relations were established, both sides discovered that there were still a number of steps to be taken to repeal it once and for all.
The third leg is business. The first large Israeli company to arrive in Bahrain at an early stage was Mekorot. Mekorot chairman Eli Cohen reached meetings with the head of the Bahrain Water Authority and at the end the two reached an agreement on the start of Mekorot projects in the country. Of money. We will be calculated later, "Tagner recalled." Mekorot began working in Bahrain even before the shekel passed. Today they are a strategic partner of the Bahrain Water Authority. We are working with them on desalination of water and a joint research station in the desert for Israel and Bahrain. "
The fourth and final leg is security.
Tegner says he quickly discovered that when talking to the Bahraini about Iran, there is no need for introductions or explanations.
They feel the Iranian threat is much more acute than Israel.
Iran is on the other side of the Gulf only 147 km away. "There is a law in Bahrain that when you are with your feet in the water of the Gulf you feel the currents," Tegner said. "The Iranian threat here is palpable.
"The Iranians are launching drones that pass over the heads of the Bahraini on their way to Saudi Arabia."
The first Israeli company in Bahrain, Eli Cohen, CEO of Mekorot (Photo: Mark Israel Salem)
After the establishment of relations between the countries, Tegner met with one of the members of the royal family who holds a senior position in the country. "We are not going to be ashamed of the relationship with you or hide it," the same senior Bahraini told him. When I visited Manama last weekend and met with Bahraini Foreign Ministry Director General Sheikh Abdullah al-Khalifa, he told me similar things: "We have built a 'warm peace' strategy with Israel and we intend to implement it in all areas," he told me.
Sheikh Abdullah, who serves as the project promoter of relations with Israel, has implemented the Bahraini promise to externalize relations with Israel in the most prominent way in the past year. Last August, during his visit to Israel, he met with Major General Tal Kalman, who is in charge of the Iranian issue in the IDF. A joint photo of the meeting was distributed to all media in Israel and around the world - including the Arabic media. Our Iran, "said Tegner." Such a picture is worth a thousand words, but the evening before the meeting, Sheikh Abdullah personally confirmed the contents of the press release that was distributed along with the picture, which stated that Israel and Bahrain had agreed to strengthen security cooperation. "
A few weeks ago, the Bahraini participated for the first time in a joint naval exercise with the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the Red Sea. Israeli soldiers also participated in this unprecedented exercise. Tegner emphasizes that the relationship with Israel has become part of the Bahraini security concept. According to him, this is also true in the opposite direction. "Once the words common threat and identity of interests are translated into images - it means they are meant seriously," he says. "When the Iranians see the willingness of their Gulf neighbors to work together with Israel and the United States at the operational level, it deprives them of sleep. This is a real Game Changer. All this was not a year ago. We say that the Iranians have opened a front against us in Syria and also in Lebanon and in Gaza through their envoys. We do not work with apostles but with partners and allies. When the Iranians look today across the Gulf waters they see a different picture. As they sit close to us - we too approached them. "
Following the establishment of relations with Israel, the Palestinians returned their ambassador from Bahrain.
Relations between the Bahraini and the Palestinians are still very tense.
After joining the Avraham agreements, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abd al-Latif al-Ziani claimed that relations with Israel would allow Bahrain to have more influence on the Palestinian issue.
Tegner says this was already evident during Operation Wall Guard in Gaza last May.
"They have not changed their position and we have a disagreement with them on the Palestinian issue. But the very dialogue with them affects us," he says.
"During 'The Guardian of the Walls', there was personal WhatsApp communication between Bahrain's foreign minister and then-foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi.
Bahraini Foreign Minister 'Abd al-Latif al-Ziani (Photo: Niv Aharonson)
Last Friday, Tegner attended a Shabbat reception at the synagogue of the small Jewish community in Bahrain. Before the prayer, a couple of Israelis addressed him in Hebrew. They introduced themselves as members of the Swiri family who left Bahrain in 1969 and immigrated to Israel. Now after establishing the relationship they are back for a roots trip. Bahraini law allows Bahraini immigrants to obtain a Bahraini passport. There are at least a thousand Israelis who meet the criteria that make this possible. One of Tegner's last meetings in office was with three foreign citizens - an artist, a musician and a chef. They asked him to connect them to the people of Israel in order to establish a joint project where they and their Israeli colleagues could meet and create common things.
"The king of Bahrain, Hemed bin Issa al-Khalifa, did not ask for any consideration for the establishment of relations with Israel," Tegner concludes.
If we make it a success story more things will happen fast.
There is a huge interest in doing things together.
After 15 months all the bridges are in place.
Now it should be seen that people are moving from both sides.
Those who are afraid can meet in the middle.
But we need to start realizing the relationship. "
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