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Israel-Morocco ties are expected to grow stronger

The Foreign Ministry in Rabat praised Jerusalem’s recognition of Western Sahara as “just and farsighted.”

Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana (left) and Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita meet in Rabat, June 8, 2023. Source: Twitter.
Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana (left) and Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita meet in Rabat, June 8, 2023. Source: Twitter.

The bilateral relationship between Israel and Morocco is expected to significantly deepen in the coming weeks and months following Israel’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, Israeli experts said Thursday.

The countries, which had maintained decades of covert cooperation in the defense and intelligence sphere, formalized relations as part of the 2020 Abraham Accords that saw four Arab countries make peace with Israel.

The Trump administration recognized Western Sahara as Moroccan territory as part of the historic deal, but Jerusalem, concerned over implications such a decision could have for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, held off on a similar move until this week.

Two days after Israel’s announcement, King Mohammed VI on Wednesday invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit Morocco, in what would be the highest-level meeting of leaders since the formalization of ties three years ago.

“Morocco got what they wanted for years, and the invitation is a quid pro quo that is the spirit of the Middle East,” Tel Aviv University Professor Uzi Rabi told JNS.

Rabi, who directs the university’s Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, deemed the move a very positive development for Israel. “Israel should not be righteous but should be wise in the Middle East,” he said.

“They [the Moroccans] got what they wanted so why not,” said Eyal Zisser, a professor of Middle Eastern and African Studies and vice rector at Tel Aviv University, in an interview with JNS. “It won’t be a game-changer for the region like an agreement with Saudi Arabia, but we will see improving ties.”

Western Sahara as game-changer

Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony believed to have considerable offshore oil deposits and mineral resources, in 1975, sparking a conflict with the pro-independence, Algerian-backed Polisario Front. A planned U.N. referendum on the territory’s future never took place over disagreements on who is eligible to vote. Morocco considers Western Sahara its territory and has been lobbying other countries to recognize this.

Israel’s position on Western Sahara, endorsed by Netanyahu, is now clear-cut and adds to the growing diplomatic momentum in Morocco’s favor.

Morocco’s Foreign Ministry, which first broke the news of the king’s very public invitation to Netanyahu, praised Israel’s recognition and its decision to consider opening a consulate in the Western Saharan regional capital of Dakhla as “both just and farsighted.”

Twenty-eight other countries—mostly African and Arab—have opened consulates in Dakhla or the city of Laayoune, in what Morocco sees as tangible support for its Western Saharan rule.

In his warm and appreciative letter to Netanyahu, which was also made public, the generally cautious monarch, who maintains a close relationship with this country’s Jewish community, gushed that their meeting in Morocco later this year would “open up new possibilities for bilateral relations between Morocco and Israel.”

Zisser noted that while the warming of Israeli-Moroccan relations would not necessarily affect regional change, Rabat is acutely aware of the strength of Israeli-U.S. relations at a time when radicals in the Arab world have sided with Algeria against Morocco.

“Morocco is not living on an island which is not influenced by what is happening in the United States or the West,” he said.

With an eye to Arab public opinion, Morocco had postponed an annual diplomatic summit of countries signatory to the Abraham Accords over the Israeli government’s construction policies in Judea and Samaria and a burst of violence there. The gathering is expected to be rescheduled for this fall.

“For Israel, it is better that Morocco will [now] be less critical and even supportive of Israel in the media, in public and international forums,” Rabi said. “This is not just another Arab country but the queen of North Africa.”

Deepening ties

In a sign of the growing security ties, Israel appointed its first-ever military attaché to Morocco earlier this month, Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi held a series of meetings in Rabat in June, and a delegation of Israeli soldiers took part in an international exercise in the North African country.

In another first, Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana paid an official visit to the Moroccan parliament last month, where he expressed support for Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, signaling an imminent change in Israeli policy. It was the first official visit by a leader of Israel’s parliament to the legislature of a Muslim country.

An estimated million Jews of Moroccan descent live in Israel; 200,000 Israelis flocked to Morocco last year, many on “roots trips.” 

This spring, Israel’s Transport Minister Miri Regev, who like the Knesset speaker and the military attaché is of Moroccan descent, traveled to Morocco and signed bilateral agreements with her counterpart, including on the recognition of Israeli driver’s licenses and maritime trade relations.

“This is a win-win deal,” Rabi said. “This is the voice of the 21st century.”

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