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Israeli delegation cancels visit to Bahrain conference after outcry

Group of Bahraini lawyers tried unsuccessfully to get court to stop immigration authorities from issuing visas to delegation, while parliament condemned visit
Parliament joined calls on social media for Israeli visit to be cancelled amid street protests in Manama (AFP/file photo)

A delegation from Israel that was to attend a conference in Bahrain this week pulled out over security concerns, the organisers said on Sunday, after Bahrainis conducted an extensive campaign against the visit.

A spokeswoman for Israeli Economy Minister Eli Cohen said his planned visit to Bahrain this week had been "delayed because of political issues", Reuters reported. 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 regional enemy, Iran. Their recent efforts have become increasingly public after mostly covert contact amid strong popular opposition to Israel’s 50-year occupation of the Palestinian territories.

The group of about 30 Israeli business executives and government officials was scheduled to participate in a congress organised by the US- based Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN) in Bahrain on 15-18 April.

This prompted an outcry in Bahrain, with parliament joining calls on social media for the visit to be cancelled amid some street protests 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".

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Israel Innovation Authority's deputy chief, Anya Eldan, and two others had been due to address GEN, according to AFP.

The Bahraini government said the delegation had been invited at the sole initiative of GEN.

"Our responsibility is to ensure a safe and supportive environment for the attending delegations," the government said in a statement.

Still, acting Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who also holds the intelligence portfolio, denied that the cancellation of Cohen's trip was because of 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 re-election in the 9 April 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," MPs 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 recently hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a surprise trip, the first time an Israeli leader had visited the sultanate in 22 years.

In 2018, Bahrain hosted a UNESCO conference attended by an Israeli delegation.