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Friday, May 14, 2021

Israel-Morocco, historical richness and domestic challenges

Dan Arbell
Dan Arbell is a Scholar in Residence at American University in Washington DC and former Deputy Ambassador of Israel to the US. He is an expert on US-Middle East-Israel issues.

Today, on Israel’s 73rd anniversary, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin hosted the traditional reception for the foreign heads of mission in Israel in his official residence in Jerusalem. This year’s event was different; as a senior representative of Morocco, the head of the Moroccan liaison mission in Tel Aviv, was in attendance, shaking the president’s hand for the first time and speaking with the Israeli media.  

Historic ties

The Trump Administration’s announcement in December 2020 that Morocco and Israel agreed to normalize relations between the two nations was an important diplomatic breakthrough, yet for decades the two counties enjoyed close ties even when they did not have full diplomatic relations. The Jewish people and the Moroccan people share a unique bond dating back centuries.

Prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, there was a sizable Jewish community of several hundreds of thousands living in Morocco. The Moroccan monarchy provided a haven for Jews, and in turn the Jewish community of Morocco contributed to the country’s growth and achievements. Riots against Jews began during the 1948 war, and thousands of Jews began leaving, a process culminating in the 1950s with the departure of the remainder of the Moroccan Jewish community to North America, Europe and Israel. 

While Morocco and Israel were officially in a state of war, the large community of Moroccan Jews in Israel served as a bridge between the two countries in times of war and in times of peace. In the 1970s, during King Hassan II’s rule, Morocco facilitated and hosted secret talks between Egypt and Israel, which eventually helped lead to the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979. During the 1980s, King Hassan continued his contacts with Israeli leaders, most notably Prime Minister Shimon Peres. The King wanted to officially recognize Israel, and in 1986 held a public meeting with Peres, but strong pressure from the Arab League led Hassan to abandon his idea. 

In September 1993, after the signing ceremony of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin returned from Washington to Israel via Morocco, briefing the King on the historic breakthrough and laying the groundwork for the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries later that year. Morocco played an important role supporting the peace process, and in 1994, hosted the first Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Economic Summit in Casablanca, designed to launch new economic and business partnerships in the region. When King Hassan died in 1999, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and other members of the Israeli cabinet attended the funeral procession, paying tribute to the late King and meeting with his son the new King, Muhammad VI. Notwithstanding, when the Second Intifada broke out in September 2000, Morocco broke off diplomatic relations with Israel and closed its diplomatic mission in Tel Aviv. 

In the last 20 years, despite the absence of full diplomatic relations, Morocco and Israel maintained ties in all spheres, including (reportedly) intelligence sharing, business, technology, culture and tourism. Israeli tourists continued visiting Morocco and Moroccan businessmen visited Israel. Official meetings between senior representatives of the two countries were held periodically, often in third venues. When the Trump Administration began with its efforts to bring about a normalization of relations between Morocco and Israel, the ground was already ripe for such a move. 

A turning point due to U.S intervention 

Between 2000-2020, Israel made numerous attempts to restore diplomatic relations with Morocco; however, Morocco was waiting for the right moment. The signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain in September 2020 created a more conducive atmosphere for Morocco to take this step, but only after the Trump Administration pledged to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara did Morocco make the final decision to advance toward normalization with Israel. As part of the “normalization package,” the U.S also agreed on a one-billion-dollar arms sale to Morocco, which included sophisticated weapons and technologies. 

Israel was not required to take any steps, not in the bilateral Israeli-Moroccan context nor in the Palestinian context, to make this deal happen. Morocco did not insist on any Israeli steps vis-a-vis the Palestinians, despite the fact that King Mohammed VI is the Chairman of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Al Quds Committee, and Morocco’s strong support for the two-state solution as the best way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As it has done in the cases of normalization between Israel and the UAE and Sudan, it was the U.S that helped furnish Israel’s normalization deal, allowing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to boast once again about the success of his “peace for peace” doctrine.

The agreement and opposition to it

The normalization agreement stipulates that Morocco and Israel will establish full diplomatic and trade relations, resume official ties, reopen liaison offices in Rabat and Tel Aviv and launch direct flights. Morocco made clear it will open a full-fledged embassy in Tel Aviv at a later date, perhaps waiting to see if the Biden Administration walks back Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara. 

Clearly, the controversial U.S recognition of Morocco’s hold over the Western Sahara, was a key “selling point” of the normalization deal by the Moroccan government to the Moroccan public. Normalization with Israel is not popular within the Moroccan public, which strongly identifies with the Palestinian struggle, so the Western Sahara decision was a “deal sweetener.” Several government ministers from the Islamist Justice and Development Youth Party voiced their opposition to the agreement, and King Muhammad VI tried to reassure Moroccans that Morocco will never take steps at the expense of the Palestinian people’s legitimate rights. 

On the Israeli side, the agreement was met with great enthusiasm, especially by the 1.3 million Israelis of Moroccan origin. Nevertheless, in the future, Morocco will have to tread carefully on the Palestinian issue. If Morocco tries to push Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, it will be met by strong opposition of Israeli right-wing parties and their constituencies which oppose such moves. 

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