Bahrain Politicians Spar Over Israel Boycott

October 25th, 2009

The Media Line Staff

The Bahraini parliament is at loggerheads with the government because of a bill which proposes heavy prison sentences for people who conduct any kind of dealings with Israel.

The bill, set to be discussed on Tuesday, bans “any form of cooperation with the Israeli entity,” and advises that offenders be punished with a three to five year jail sentence and a fine of up to 10,000 Bahraini dinars ($26,500). The offender may also have his labor license revoked for up to ten years.

Proposed by five lawmakers from Al-Wefaq, a Shia opposition party, the bill has been endorsed by the parliament’s foreign affairs, defense and national security committees.

The Bahraini government, however, argues the bill interferes with local interests and the responsibilities of the various government ministries.

Christian Koch, director of International Studies at the Gulf Research Center, said such bills were common in the Gulf and he saw it as a domestic power struggle rather than a toughening of Bahrain’s position against Israel.

“The government doesn’t want to have its own policy-making capabilities curtailed,” Koch told The Media Line. “It doesn’t want to be told by parliament what it can and cannot do. It could simply be an internal motivation, in the sense that you don’t want to be seen to yield to an opposition group from within parliament and therefore set a precedent for other moves in the future, where opposition groups will feel emboldened to challenge the government in other areas.”

Koch argued that opposition to Israel provides lawmakers with a “very popular slogan.”

A number of Bahraini pundits have argued that the bill conflicts with Bahrain’s diplomatic responsibilities and its obligations to international organizations.

The Bahraini government said the proposed bill did not take the government’s policies into consideration in its efforts to serve the Palestinian cause.

“It also doesn’t take into consideration some of the developments that have occurred in the peace process in the Middle East,” the Prime Minister wrote in a statement, “which has lead the Arab League to make decisions that ended the secondary and tertiary boycott, and the Gulf Cooperation Council has made decisions that correspond with the Arab League decisions.”

At the same time, the Bahraini government stressed in a statement that it would maintain its “strong and fundamental position that there will be no form of normalization with Israel until after occupied Arab land has been liberated, an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital is formed and a joint Arab decision is made through the Arab League regarding relations with Israel.”

Koch said that if approved the bill was unlikely to make any difference if countries in the region decided to normalize relations with Israel, as this would draw criticism in any case.

“Unless the government tries to do work ahead of time, to build a consensus and a coalition, these issues will become a test of wills between the two sides,” he said. “If they’re lucky enough to have an agreement, it doesn’t mean there won’t be problems.”

“Generally, I feel that there is strong support for the Arab peace initiative in the region,” he added. “If some MPs [members of parliament] want to use that to criticize the government and say they are going ahead on their own, it might receive some play in the press but it doesn’t mean anything in the end.”

Although there are no official diplomatic relations between Bahrain and Israel, officials of the two countries have met in international forums, such as at the World Economic Forum and at the United Nations. There are also trade relations between Israel and Bahrain, although these are usually conducted quietly so as not to draw any unwanted attention.

Bahrain is a party to the Arab Initiative, originally introduced as the Saudi Initiative in 2002. The peace plan outlines a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, under which Israel would withdraw from lands seized since 1967 and accept a Palestinian state with eastern Jerusalem as its capital. In exchange, Arab countries, including Bahrain, would normalize relations with Israel. The initiative was reaffirmed at an Arab League summit in Riyadh in 2007.

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