Israel’s relationship with Morocco is lifting off.
Israel renewed bilateral relations with Morocco last December, following its normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, all of which were brokered by the United States.
The Israeli government initially compared its rapprochement with Morocco with that of the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain. Morocco, however, presented the accord as a return to the status quo ante, when both countries maintained low-level liaison offices rather than full-fledged embassies in each other’s capitals.
These offices were opened in 1995, when the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestinians was in full swing and a resolution of the Palestinian problem seemed attainable.
With the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000, Morocco — a vocal partisan of the Palestinian cause — closed its office in Tel Aviv and ordered Israel to shutter its office in Rabat.
Last year, after President Donald Trump broke with decades of U.S. policy and formally recognized Morocco’s annexation of and sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara, he demanded a quid pro quo from Morocco: the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Israel.
Morocco agreed, but resisted full-scale normalization until Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, conveyed iron-clad assurances that he would not reverse his predecessor’s recognition of the Western Sahara, claimed by the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, as Moroccan sovereign territory.
Once the Moroccan government was certain that the Biden administration would indeed honor Trump’s policy, Morocco decided it could move ahead confidently with normalizing relations with Israel.
This is precisely what happened earlier this week when Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid arrived in Morocco for a two-day visit from August 11-12. He was the first Israeli foreign minister to be invited to Morocco since Silvan Shalom’s and David Levy’s respective visits in 2003 and 1999.
Lapid’s trip was arranged by the director-general of the Foreign Ministry, Alon Ushpiz, who went to Morocco on July 6.
Speaking at a press conference in Casablanca shortly after officially reopening Israel’s liaison office in Rabat, Lapid announced that Israel and Morocco would upgrade relations to full diplomatic ties and open embassies in each other’s countries within two months.
Lapid added that his host, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, would fly to Israel aboard the first Royal Air Maroc flight from Morocco to Israel in either October or November to open the Moroccan embassy in Tel Aviv.
But in an unmistakable sign that Morocco will tread carefully as it consolidates its bonds with Israel, Bourita himself declined to attend the ceremony at which Israel’s liaison office was reopened. Instead, he sent a representative, Deputy Foreign Minister Mohcine Jazouli.
To soften the blow, Israel claimed that Bourita’s absence should not be regarded as a snub, but as an attempt to underscore the point that Morocco’s relations are normal and do not require high-level representation at every ceremony.
Few observers bought into this far-fetched argument, especially after Moroccan Prime Minister Saadeddine El-Othmani, an Islamist from the Islamic Justice and Development Party, refused to meet Lapid.
Othmani’s boycott of Lapid was not unexpected.
His party categorically rejected a renewal of relations with Israel, forcing King Mohammed VI to move ahead with it with the support of only part of his government.
And this past May, when the fourth cross-border war pitting Israel against Hamas erupted, Othmani condemned Israel, saying that Morocco “places the Palestinian issue … at the top of its list of concerns …”
In the aftermath of the war, he wrote a letter to Hamas political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, praising Hamas’ “victory” over Israel. And in June, he invited Haniyeh to Morocco on an official visit, during which time he met the creme de la creme of Moroccan politicians and dined with the king.
By contrast, Lapid did not meet the king during his visit. But according to reports, the king regards economic relations with Israel as potentially important. The volume of Israeli-Moroccan trade is still modest, hovering around the $20 million mark annually. But according to the Israel Export Institute, it could well reach $250 million per annum.
In a sign, perhaps, that Israeli-Moroccan relations are progressing, President Isaac Herzog invited the king to visit Israel. The invitation was contained in a letter Lapid left with Bourita. The letter reads, “We are committed to deepening … our relations, and I hope they further expand and flourish over time.”
Realistically speaking, it would be surprising if the king accepts the invitation. As head of state, chief religious figure and chairman of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Al-Quds Committee, he retains credibility by demonstrating unflagging fealty to the Palestinian cause, which is very popular in Morocco.
Lest it be forgotten, Morocco has participated in Arab-Israeli wars, the last one having been the 1973 Yom Kippur War on the side of the Syrian army on the Golan Heights. And in 1974, Rabat was the venue of an Arab League conference at which the PLO was recognized as the “sole, legitimate” representative of the Palestinians.
To no one’s surprise, Bourita raised the Palestinian issue during Lapid’s visit, calling for a two-state solution “based on the borders of 1967.”
On the other hand, Bourita described Morocco’s relations with Israel as “not like any other,” calling attention to its diminished Jewish community of approximately 2,500, the largest in the Arab world, and to the ties that bind Morocco and Moroccan Jews in Israel.
Prior to Israel’s birth in 1948, Morocco was home to as many as 250,000 Jews. But as Arab-Israeli wars erupted and local Jewish communities were conflated with Israel and boycotted by Muslims, Moroccan Jews fled en masse, immigrating primarily to Israel, France and Canada.
By one estimate, one million Moroccan Jews and their descendants live in Israel today, with some 80,000 Israelis visiting Morocco annually and thereby boosting the Moroccan tourist industry, a key element of Morocco’s economy.
During the course of his visit, Lapid and Bourita signed a diplomatic accord regulating the establishment of embassies, as well as three cooperation agreements in the fields of tourism, sports, culture and aviation.
Striking an upbeat note, Bourita said, “I am sure there are at least ten more agreements in the pipeline.”
Late last month, the first direct commercial flights between Israel and Morocco took place, with passengers on Israir and El Al airliners landing in Marrakesh. In the near future, El Al plans five flights per week from Ben-Gurion Airport to Casablanca and Marrakesh.
On July 17, Israel and Morocco signed an agreement to cooperate in cyber-defence. Israel will reportedly help Morocco develop its capabilities against digital crime and business espionage.
Israel and Morocco have shared military and intelligence information over the years on a covert basis, particularly during the reign of King Hassan II, who died in 1999. On July 4, a Moroccan Air Force cargo plane landed at an Israeli airfield to participate in a military exercise with the Israel Defence Forces, underscoring the potential for further such exercises.
Reports suggest that Morocco has bought military communication equipment and drones from Israel via third parties.
From a geopolitical point of view, Israel’s relations with Morocco may well prove to be beneficial. Morocco reportedly helped Israel regain observer status in the African Union recently. In 1977, Morocco played a role in Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s momentous decision to visit Jerusalem, a trip that led to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel two years later.
And as Lapid said two days ago, Israel’s existing ties with the Arab world could be the basis of an informal strategic alliance against Iran. “Strategically, what we are creating here is a diplomatic axis of Israel, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which presents a pragmatic alternative to religious extremism,” he said.
In the meanwhile, Morocco’s envoy to Israel, Abdel Rahim-Biod, has worked assiduously to cultivate Israelis from all walks of life, especially those of Moroccan heritage. He has met the mayors of Tel Aviv and Bet Shemesh, visited the northern town of Afula, and toured the campus of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, always leaving a favorable impression.