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The Moroccan normalization: Another step forward

Even as the peace train is pulling out, changing the regional dynamic perhaps permanently, the Palestinian issue cannot be ignored

The breakthrough this August between the United Arab Emirates and Israel will be remembered as historic not only because it was the first such agreement in 26 years, but also because it initiated true normalization in contrast to the Egyptian and Jordanian agreements, and because it opened up a path of normalization for other Middle Eastern countries.

The fruits of that opening came into fuller flower with the significant announcement of a coming normalization with Morocco. On so many levels, this announcement adds new dimensions to this historic process.

Unlike the other cases, Morocco has been taking public steps over the years which presaged this announcement. When the Oslo agreement was signed, Israel was able to set up a liaison office in Rabat, signaling a level of diplomatic relations, if not full, that had never existed before. In addition, many Israelis visited Morocco and there were warm exchanges between Israeli and Moroccan leaders. This all came to a halt with the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in the year 2000. Populist pressures within Morocco thereafter played a role in the cooling of any renewal of formal relations until recent developments.

A second area of uniqueness about this latest breakthrough is the existing relationship between the government of Morocco, led by its king, and the Jewish community of the country. It is true that in the early days of Israel’s founding, the Jews of Morocco were highly insecure about their future as two pogroms took place in the cities of Oujda and Jerada in June 1948. As the years passed and antisemitism remained an issue, some 250,000 Jews eventually left Morocco, the vast majority going to Israel. This mass migration has produced a very large bloc of Moroccan immigrants and their descendants as citizens in Israel.

In recent decades, however, the king and his government have been doing whatever they can to make Moroccan Jews feel at home in their country, even encouraging many of their brothers and sisters living in Israel to return to their former homeland. This royal policy toward the Jewish community was consistent with that of Muhammad V who protected Jews of Morocco during the Holocaust.

Third, there are some unique strategic developments that characterize the context and reasons for this latest accord. In Morocco’s case, like the others, fear of Iranian expansionism was at work. Morocco severed diplomatic relations with Iran in 2019 for its meddling and for Hezbollah military support to the Polisario, the group contesting Morocco in the Western Sahara.

Connected to that was the Trump administration’s announcement that it was recognizing Moroccan control over that disputed region, without which this accord almost certainly would not have taken place. While the realpolitik nature of this facet of the agreement will no doubt tamp down enthusiasm in some corners for Morocco and Israel’s peace accord, it does not detract from the accord’s significance and impact.

Fourth is the potential impact the Moroccan decision could have on other North African Arab nations, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. None of these countries, unlike the Saudis following the UAE and Bahrain agreements, seem likely to follow Morocco’s lead. Only Tunisia had a history of reaching out to Israel among the three and in the days of former president Babib Bourguiba, Tunisia was referred to as a moderate Arab nation and even proposed a peace plan for the Arab world with Israel. Tunisia has done better in creating stability after the turmoil of the Arab Spring and might be the only one that down the road would look toward changing its relationship with Israel, although populist political currents there have also fueled certain expressions of hostility toward Israel.

Libya is a complete mess with two competing forces vying for power and dividing the country. Algeria has a long history of supporting the Palestinian movement and of hostility toward Israel so is also unlikely to go soon in a new direction.

Having said all this, the dynamic in North Africa and beyond has changed maybe permanently. With Egypt, Morocco and Sudan now all at peace with Israel, the three largest nations in the region have all agreed to maintain full diplomatic relations with Israel, even if the degree to which their societies will be encouraged to engage in people-to-people engagements with Israelis is unclear to varying degrees in all three of these cases – in marked contrast to the Emirates and Bahrain.

Fifth, inevitably is the impact of this accord on the Palestinians. Clearly, the Moroccan step deepens the reality that normalization with Israel by other Arab societies will not be held hostage to the Palestinian issue. So on one level that plays into the notion that the train is leaving the station and the Palestinians better hop on while they can.

But it’s not so simple. One always has to come back to the fact that Israel needs a solution to the Palestinian issue as much as the Palestinians. It is critical for Israel to sustain the possibility of separation between Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank, if not a Palestinian state. So the Palestinian issue cannot be ignored, even as the normalization train is pulling out.

What it does mean, however, is that the issue must be seen through different eyes. The Arab world is demonstrating that it’s moving on in some key areas. The anti-Israel forces on the left in the US and Europe, undoubtedly in a state of panic that the Arabs are not allowing the Palestinian issue to rule the day, will probably increase their anti-Israel activity.  They also seem to dismiss the significance of these accords by emphasizing the authoritarian nature of the Arab governments that have agreed to them, while giving other Mideast regimes – not least in Gaza, the West Bank, Iran, Syria, and Turkey – an unjustified free pass.

The most realistic hope at this stage is that a variety of interested parties in the Arab world will ultimately push the Palestinians toward a new way of thinking about Israel, not as part of a zero-sum game, but as a vehicle for compromise and practical solutions that are the only way to achieve a genuine improvement in the Palestinian people’s circumstances and to address as much as possible their legitimate rights and aspirations.

The reality of Morocco now added to the list of normalizers gives new strength to Arab countries who approach the Palestinians from a pragmatic, and hopefully productive, perspective.

The Palestinian issue was never the key to all Middle East issues, as too many politicians proclaimed for years. Now that that has become self-evident, I hope that the region can move toward progress on that important issue as well.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
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