US Navy eyes Israeli robot boats as Bennett visits Bahrain, official says

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is greeted by Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al-Zayani after arriving at Manama International Airport in Manama, Bahrain, February 14, 2022. Haim Zach/Government Press Office (GPO)/via REUTERS

By Reuters

The U.S. Navy is considering adding unmanned Israeli boats to its joint Middle East operations, a U.S. official said, a move that could deepen Israel’s growing role in regional military arrangements as it normalises ties with former foes in the Gulf.

Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and several international naval task forces, is hosting a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the first by any Israeli leader following the 2020 normalisation of ties between the two states.

Israel is due to become the 29th country to post an attache to the fleet’s Manama headquarters, officials said, adding the as-yet unnamed envoy would likely be of navy captain or commander rank.

“It’s about keeping the lines of communication open” bilaterally between Israel and the fleet, a U.S. official said, referring to the plan to station the envoy in the Gulf kingdom.

Israel has not formally confirmed the appointment. Fleet chief Vice Admiral Brad Cooper met Bennett on Tuesday, with Bennett telling Cooper he expected “the cooperation among the region’s countries and powerful ally the United States will keep getting closer”, Bennett’s office said.

The U.S. official said the fleet was examining dozens of unmanned vessels as part of current Gulf exercises, and it was interested in Israeli-made surface drones as possible complements to flying and underwater drones.

“The Israelis are definitely vested in leveraging this technology,” the official said, adding that a fleet commander had in recent weeks visited Haifa in Israel to study the surface drones. An Israeli military spokeswoman had no immediate comment.

In November, Forces from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Israel and the Bahrain-based U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) took part in a security exercise in the Red Sea, the first publicly acknowledged naval exercise between the United States, Israel and its two new Gulf friends.

Bennett described his two-day trip as a chance to forge a common stand against Iran and its allies like Yemen’s Houthis, whose attacks on the UAE this year jarred the oil-producing region.

Sunni-ruled Bahrain accuses Shi’ite Iran of stoking unrest in Bahrain, a charge Tehran denies.

Bennett, who on Tuesday met ministers and also members of Bahrain’s Jewish community, is due to meet King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

Israel and Bahrain signed a research and development agreement and agreed to expedite negotiations on an investment protection agreement to facilitate investment flows, Bennett’s office said on Tuesday.

Earlier this month Israel and Bahrain signed a security cooperation agreement, Israel’s first with a Gulf nation.

“Israel and Bahrain are dealing with major security challenges stemming from the same source; the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Bennett told Bahraini newspaper Alayam on Tuesday.

Bahrain, a small island state striving to fix its heavily indebted-finances, is a close ally of Saudi Arabia – with whom Israel has no formal relationship.