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Israeli-Moroccan security cooperation and the changing landscape in North Africa

Three important steps for Israel to take in light of the new dynamism in relations with Rabat.

An honor guard welcomes then-IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in Rabat, July 19, 2022. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit.
An honor guard welcomes then-IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in Rabat, July 19, 2022. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit.
Eran Lerman
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, former deputy director of the National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

The commanding officer of the Moroccan Armed Forces, Lt. Gen. Belkhir el–Farouk, whose formal title is Inspector General and Commander of the South Zone, was among several chiefs of staff and senior commanding officers from around the world who took part in an unprecedented international conference on operational innovation convened by the IDF in mid-September (President Isaac Herzog also hosted them for a ceremonial event).

Farouk also held talks with his counterpart, Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, reciprocating the latter’s warm visit on 19-20 July, a ground-breaking event—an Israeli commander enjoying a full ceremonial reception in an Arab country.

The two visits constitute a milestone, both substantive and symbolic, in the mutual effort to enhance strategic, military, diplomatic and economic relations, going back to Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s visit in November 2021 and the participation of Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita in the Negev Summits in Israel and Bahrain. Other Israeli government ministers who visited Morocco include Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and Justice Minister Gideon Saar, who signed a cooperation agreement between the two national court systems.

At the military level, the two countries agreed to position military attaches at their respective embassies—another unprecedented step in Arab-Israeli relations, as neither Egypt nor Jordan, after 43 and 28 years of peace, respectively, have done so. It was also agreed to hold bilateral air exercises and include the Israeli Air Force in multilateral exercises with other African countries. IDF representatives also participated in the Moroccans’ joint exercise with the U.S. African Command (AFRICOM) early in July.

All this comes from the far-reaching commitments embodied in the memorandum of understanding signed during Gantz’s visit in November. The two countries have signed acquisition agreements worth several hundred million dollars, including cooperation on drone development and counter-measures, in addition to the existing links between them.

The roots of the partnership go back to the 1960s when Morocco offered Israel access to intelligence when faced with the common threat of the rise of revolutionary Arab nationalism under former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Israel, for its part, did its best to protect the monarchy against its detractors (and thus ended up entangled in the Ben Barka affair, the abduction and death in Paris of a fierce critic of the regime).

In the 1970s, as the confrontation between Morocco and Algeria over control of the formerly Spanish colony of Western Sahara grew sharper, Israel sold Morocco significant amounts of French-made military surplus, including tanks. At the same time, the IDF shifted to U.S.-made equipment.

Meanwhile, at the diplomatic and U.S. political level, Israel and her friends in Washington were mobilized to help King Hasan II in his bid for sovereignty in Western Sahara. The latter was effectively annexed to Morocco, but a radical underground, The Polisario Front, backed by Algeria and favored by the Soviet Union (and some European countries), continued to wage war on the Moroccan presence. Thus, the king highly valued Israel’s position and offered his help in the critical preparatory contacts that led to the breakthrough between Israel and Egypt.

Following the Oslo Accords (1993) and the peace treaty with Jordan (1994), Morocco moved to establish reciprocal diplomatic legations (not at the level of embassies, however). A steady flow of visits by Israelis—many of them of Moroccan origin—and growing trade were added to the intelligence sharing and military cooperation. Even after formal relations were severed again due to the outbreak of Palestinian violence in the autumn of 2000, tens of thousands of Israelis continued to visit every year, and military cooperation, including arms supplies, continued.

Beyond that, the new Moroccan constitution of 2011 references the Jewish component of Moroccan cultural identity. Its preamble explains that the country’s unity “is forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamic, Amazigh [Berber] and Saharan-Hassanic components, nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences.” The Jewish Museum in Casablanca is the only one of its kind in the Arab world. Cultural exchanges and participation in sports events were already taking place before the Abraham Accords’ breakthrough.

Still, it is the dynamic development of security cooperation, ever since the formal establishment of relations, which has set the agenda. The steps already taken, and set to expand further, are unprecedented in scope and significance and, in some respects, exceed even the parallel progress in Israeli relations with the UAE and Bahrain. Both countries are concerned about Iran’s ambitions in the region; Morocco cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran in 2018 due to the involvement of Iranian government agents in supporting the Polisario Front.

Ultimately, however, the growing tension with Algeria is uppermost on Rabat’s mind. This tension has only been exacerbated by the tightening Moroccan links with Israel, and might yet deteriorate into open violence. More broadly, Morocco is engaged in a struggle against radical elements and faces new challenges due to developments in the North African Mediterranean countries, the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa.

These worries (and the equally pressing concerns of Egypt) require Israel to pay attention to events in this part of the world—which for many years was almost “off the radar” for the Israeli defense establishment. The time has come for Israel to openly proclaim its acknowledgment of Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara, a decision that has been much too long in coming. The failure to do so until now has caused some dissatisfaction among Moroccans and the government.

The transformed regional balance in North Africa

Algeria was once one of the leading countries in the Arab world’s radical pro-Soviet camp, and thus also a focal point of hostility towards Israel and support for Palestinian terrorism. However, during the 1990s, the regime faced a life-and-death struggle with Islamist totalitarianism. This, in turn, enhanced its relations with the moderate camp in the region.

Occasional signs of contact, such as the handshake between then Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President of Algeria Abdelaziz Bouteflika during the funeral of King Hassan II of Morocco, led to speculation about a possible turnaround in relations—but in 2000, the outbreak of Palestinian violence meant that all such notions were written off.

For several reasons, including the ongoing internal tension between the military-based regime and the Hirak (Movement) protesters and the angry Algerian response to the Israeli-Moroccan alignment—the Algerian government is now openly hostile. It has taken initiatives that Israel finds troubling, such as the active role it seeks to play in promoting reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority leadership and Hamas.

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune initiated and hosted a meeting on July 5 between P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh. Despite its brutal war with Islamist terror on its soil, Algeria is willing to legitimize the Hamas regime in pursuit of its hostility towards Israel and Morocco.

In terms of its international orientation, Algeria is close to Russia—and even more so to China. It was infuriated recently by Spain’s decision to reverse its position in support of the Polisario Front in favor of Morocco’s claims.

Israel has minimal leverage when it comes to Algeria. Attitudes towards it are bound to be shaped by the growing partnership with Rabat, whose importance for Israel will only grow over time. The main effort which the new reality calls for is at the level of intelligence gathering and analysis—and the occasional use of indirect channels, via European countries whom the Algerians need, to warn the Tebboune regime against sliding over from moral support into actively aiding terrorism, which may carry consequences for Algeria’s international standing.

At the same time, it should be borne in mind that the rising importance of Algeria as an energy supplier, at least for Europe, due to the war in Ukraine, may enhance its position in Europe and complicate matters for Israel and Morocco.

The situation is more nuanced vis-à-vis Tunisia. There are similarities between what has been taking place there and the Algerian developments under Tebboune—or for that matter, Egyptian patterns in the age of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The current president, Kais Saied, elected in 2019, has taken steps over the last year to reverse the liberal parliamentarian advances made in Tunisia after the tumult of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011.

For a while, it seemed as if this would be the one Arab country in which democratization would take hold. However, the Islamist forces—particularly the Ennahda (renaissance) movement led by Rached Ghannouchi—gained significant political power. Saied took it upon his shoulders to block their prospect of regaining power by using repressive measures.

Saied’s posture towards Israel during his election campaign and since he took office has been bluntly hostile, negating any prospect of normalization. This, despite the role played by Tunisia in 1994, when it was among the first to establish low-level relations with Israel, hosting a round of the Arms Control and Regional Security multilateral negotiations. It continues to tolerate its small Jewish community (whose roots on the Island of Djerba go back to the First Temple era). Saied’s position seems driven by his personal preferences and his wish to appeal to pro-Palestinian public sentiments.

Still, due to his affinity with Egypt’s leadership and relative dependence on the West and Gulf investors, there could be a chance for ties with Israel in the future, but this will require patience. The government and media in Algeria are already concerned about such a possibility, which would create more common ground between Tunisia and Morocco.

In Libya, insofar as it can be treated as one political entity, the ongoing internal crisis continues to generate factional conflict and tensions. The intensity of fighting has increased significantly since the Turkish intervention in late 2019 and the Egyptian threat to respond with massive force in 2020, which led to a prolonged stalemate between the key warring factions. Still, much of the country is held by the Libyan National Army, loyal to self-styled Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, backed by Egypt (as well as by Russia and France, each for its reasons). Meanwhile, much of the international community still recognizes the opposing government in Tripoli, which is still in the grip of power struggles between various armed elements and is influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey.

For Israel, the one overriding consideration concerning the Libyan situation—even if this leads to some degree of cooperation with Haftar, a highly controversial figure—is to help prevent any developments which may put Egypt’s stability in danger. Egypt has a long, porous border with Cyrenaica—the eastern part of Libya—and should it fall into the wrong hands, this could also affect arms smuggling to Sinai and Gaza.

Moreover, Israel should seek to bring about the annulment of the memorandum of understanding signed by the Government of National Accord in Tripoli and Erdogan’s government in Ankara in November 2019, which draws a map of the Eastern Mediterranean exclusive economic zone borders that would lock out Israel, Cyprus and Egypt and cut off the access of their energy resources to the European market.

What can be done? 

In light of the new dynamism with Morocco and the equally important imperative of helping secure stability in Egypt, it would be appropriate for Israel to do the following:

1. Enhance intelligence monitoring and understanding of events in North Africa, specifically in Libya, Tunisia and Algeria, with an eye toward threats and opportunities.

2. Intensify coordination with Egypt and Morocco and seek opportunities to do so discreetly in a trilateral manner, identifying shared priorities and opportunities for joint action.

3. Warn Algeria against active support for terror. In addition, Israel should continue its ongoing dialogue with key European players, particularly with France, Italy and Spain, with their stake in Mediterranean affairs. The same also applies to the work of Israel’s friends in Washington.

The role of Egypt and the stability and orientation of the region’s most populous nation remain central to the emerging regional security architecture and its new strategic alignments. At the same time, Israel’s relations with Morocco can be dramatically improved if Israel takes the formal decision to follow America’s lead and acknowledge Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

IDF Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman is a former senior intelligence officer. He served as Israel’s deputy national security adviser (2009–2015), and prior to that as director of the AJC Israel and ME office (2001–2009). He is currently the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a lecturer at Shalem College. @EranLerman

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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