Manama: Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmad Al Khalifa has defended Bahrain's contacts with influential American Jews, saying that they were part of a drive to bring genuine peace to the Middle East.

The government of the predominantly Muslim country with a tiny Jewish community has recently come under attack from local columnists who claimed that the visit last month by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) to Bahrain was to prepare for normalisation of relations with Israel.

Bahrain, like most Arab countries, does not have diplomatic ties with Israel. But it has ended the formal boycott of Israeli goods as a requirement by the US Congress to endorse the Free Trade Agreement with the US.

But Shaikh Khalid said that it was important for Bahrain to listen to views from the AJC.

Not first time

"This is not the first time that the committee visits Bahrain. Its members were here in 1996 and we have to remember that they are not Israelis, but Americans even if they have ties with Israel. We need to listen to their views and meeting with them was not a crime," Shaikh Khalid said in an interview with Al Ayam yesterday. "We should remember that the committee had told the former prime minister of Israel Benyamin Netanyahu that establishing a Palestinian state on the lands occupied in 1967 was the only solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict."

The minister insisted that boycotting American Jews would be detrimental to Arabs and would not help address the problems plaguing the region.

"Even though AJC members are part of the Israeli lobby in the States, we need to interact with them. They are very powerful and influential at all levels in America and dealing with them is a necessity. Only now are Arabs trying to build ties with them in order to understand them. If you want to win people over, you do not fight them," he said.

Last Thursday, Nasser Al Belooshi, Bahrain's ambassador to the US, and several Arab diplomats in Washington took part in Passover, a commemoration of the Jews' journey. "We want peace and freedom," the envoy was quoted as saying. Last year, he gave a speech at a synagogue in Florida sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County.

About 50 Bahraini Jews live in the kingdom, the descendents of Iraqi, Iranian and Indian traders who settled here in the early 1900s. The community is represented at the upper house by Hoda Nonoo.