JERUSALEM (AP) -- A joint American-Israeli delegation headed Sunday for Bahrain, where officials will be signing a number of bilateral agreements following an announcement last month to normalize relations.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, led the delegation that flew out of Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport.
Israel's commercial El Al flight 973 — a nod to the international dialing code for Bahrain — will fly through Saudi Arabia's airspace en route to Manama, where dignitaries from all three countries will speak at a ceremony after landing.
U.S., Israeli and Bahraini flags festooned the tarmac before take-off. Ben-Shabbat, one of the key Israeli officials involved in negotiations with Bahrain, said ahead of take-off that the visit will “translate plans to actions and concrete agreements" with the signing of a range of deals involving finance, investment, trade, tourism, communications, technology and agriculture.
Another Israeli official said the visit represents the official establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries with the sides expected to sign a joint statement establishing full diplomatic relations.
The decision to establish ties with Israel has outraged the Palestinians, whose leadership has blasted the Bahraini move, and a similar Emirati deal, as a betrayal and an undermining of the Arab stance that recognition of Israel should come only after Palestinians achieve an independent state of their own.
Bahraini civil society groups and opposition figures, already targeted in a yearslong crackdown on dissent, have also spoken out against normalization with Israel.
As part of the deal to normalize relations, the two Gulf Arab states and Israel will eventually establish embassies and exchange ambassadors. The Israeli official said the Israeli Embassy was expected to open in Bahrain in the coming months.
Similar to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain is expected to open its embassy at some point in the city of Tel Aviv, where most foreign embassies are located because of Jerusalem's contested status.
Bahraini and Israeli officials have held numerous conversations since announcing their intention to establish full ties. Sunday's face-to-face meetings, however, are seen as another step toward normalization.
The El Al flight landed at Bahrain International Airport on Sunday afternoon. The kingdom's state-owned television channels did not carry the arrival live, nor did the state-run news agency announce the Israelis' presence. Bahrain's state-run news agency later published pictures of the arrival, acknowledging the Israeli officials were there to sign documents “establishing diplomatic relations between the kingdom of Bahrain and the state of Israel, in addition to a number of memoranda of understanding in the areas of joint cooperation.”
Meanwhile, Israel and the UAE have already signed a number of business, banking and intergovernmental agreements.
Bahrain and the UAE signed the agreement to normalize relations with Israel in a ceremony at the White House on Sept. 15. Egypt and Jordan are the only other two Arab states to sign diplomatic treaties with Israel, in 1979 and 1994, respectively.
The accords made public what had been a gradual strengthening of quiet ties between Israel and several Gulf states — forged in recent years over a shared concern over regional rival Iran. Other Arab countries could follow suit, with analysts and insiders pointing to Sudan, Oman and Morocco as possibilities.
The trip to Bahrain on Sunday also came as U.N. arms embargoes on Iran expired despite American objections. Bahrain, like several other Gulf Arab nations, views Iran as the most-serious threat to its security in the Persian Gulf.
The Israeli delegation is slated to fly back to Tel Aviv later on Sunday, while the Americans will head to the UAE before flying to Israel on Tuesday.
Last month, the first known commercial flight between the two countries brought a delegation of Israeli officials to Manama to discuss cooperation between Israel and Bahrain following the signing of an agreement to normalize ties.