JERUSALEM — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Bahraini counterpart landed in Israel on Wednesday to mark a new, US-brokered normalization deal just hours after Israeli forces carried out retaliatory air strikes on Iranian targets in Syria.
The strikes, which Syria’s state media said had killed at least three Syrian soldiers, came a day after Israeli forces found antipersonnel mines planted in Israeli-held territory along the boundary with Syria. They were part of a long-running campaign as Israel tries to thwart what it describes as a concerted effort by Iran to entrench itself on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that overlooks northern Israel.
The foreign minister of Bahrain, Abdul Latif bin Rashid al-Zayani, was making the first official visit since his country agreed in September to normalize relations with Israel — a deal that followed a similar agreement between Israel and Bahrain’s Gulf neighbor, the United Arab Emirates. Pompeo arrived later Wednesday to attend a meeting in Jerusalem of Israeli, Bahraini, and American officials.
The normalization deals were struck in the waning days of the Trump administration to notch final foreign policy achievements just before the Nov. 3 US election. The sight of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Pompeo, and al-Zayani standing side by side on a podium at Netanyahu’s residence served a victory image for the outgoing Trump administration.
Netanyahu thanked Pompeo for his “unwavering friendship” and said the normalization deals would never have been signed “without President Trump’s crucial support and leadership.”
But after the election of the Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, regional powers now appear to be jostling for position amid worries that a Biden administration will be softer on Iran and seek to rejoin the international nuclear deal with Iran, repudiated by President Trump two years ago.
Netanyahu has long rejected the deal, which was meant to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, saying it was inadequate and dangerous.
Pompeo, who has embarked on a last-minute lap of diplomacy in Europe and the Middle East, said that beside the opportunities for commerce and economic development, the normalization agreements “also tell malign actors like the Islamic Republic of Iran that their influence in the region is waning and that they are ever more isolated.”
In a separate meeting, al-Zayani and Israel’s foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, said they had agreed to open embassies in each other’s countries as soon as possible.
“We addressed the importance of regional stability, as well as the need to combat terrorism and extremism and to build in its place a culture of dialogue and understanding,” al-Zayani said at a joint news conference.
He added that he had invited Ashkenazi to attend next month’s Manama Dialogue, a meeting in Bahrain on regional and international security cooperation.
“Developments like today’s visit, which would have appeared impossible only a few months ago, now seem to happen almost weekly,” al-Zayani said.
The alliance between Israel and the Gulf states has largely been based on their shared interest in countering Iran, their common archnemesis. Wednesday’s events along the Syrian frontier only underscored the challenges.
In what analysts view as an effort to preempt, complicate, or narrow Biden’s options, Trump is now racing to increase US sanctions against Iran during his last weeks in office and to seal his pledge to sell advanced weapons to Tehran’s regional enemies, including F-35 stealth fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates.
The recent exposure of the assassination this summer of Al Qaeda’s number two in a Tehran suburb by Israeli agents working at the behest of the United States could also make it harder for Biden to maneuver. Trump is even said to have considered a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities before leaving office but was dissuaded from such a step to avoid the risk of a broader conflagration.
The Trump administration has benefited Israel as well as its Gulf allies. Overturning decades of US diplomacy, Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Israeli-controlled portion of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 war.
The United States under Trump also recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, despite Palestinian claims to the eastern portion of the city. Trump’s administration further declared that it no longer considered Israeli settlements in the West Bank as necessarily a violation of international law, defying international consensus.
It is possible that Pompeo will visit both the Golan Heights and an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank before leaving Israel on Friday, flouting longstanding diplomatic convention, though American officials have so far refused to confirm any details of his itinerary.
The latest events along the Golan frontier highlighted the volatile conditions there, with Israel directly engaging with Iranian forces, who have intervened in Syria’s civil war, several times in recent years.
Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief who now directs the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said Wednesday that the Israeli airstrikes were a message to the Iranians that any restraint on Israel’s part is over.
He predicted the Iranians would be cautious about responding in the final weeks of the Trump administration. But he warned in a series of posts on Twitter: “The campaign against Iranian entrenchment began before the Trump administration and will continue after it.”