OpinionMiddle East

Israel-Morocco relations and the future of the Abraham Accords

The time is ripe for Israel to take the initiative and remove the critical remaining obstacle to full and formal diplomatic relations with the kingdom.

The flags of Israel and Morocco. Source: Gabi Ashkenazi/Twitter.
The flags of Israel and Morocco. Source: Gabi Ashkenazi/Twitter.
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.

Since its creation in March 2022, what came to be called the Negev Forum brought together the United States, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Israel and evolved into the formal framework reflecting the spirit of the Abraham Accords. Sudan, which did not complete the relevant procedures, is now in the grip of a massive internal conflict, whereas Jordan—while sustaining a complex bilateral relationship with Israel—has yet to change course and join, as Egypt did at the Forum’s inception.

A meeting of the Forum’s Steering Committee and of the six working groups associated with it was held in the UAE in early January. Remarkably, the atmosphere was strikingly positive, indicating good prospects for broadening cooperation, despite the rise to power in Israel of Netanyahu’s coalition government (the first meeting, in Sde Boker, was held when Yair Lapid was prime minister and foreign minister).

The mood changed within weeks, however, as tension rose between Israel and the Palestinians. The focus of regional involvement shifted to the Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh meetings that brought together Israeli and Palestinian officials and involved Jordan, Egypt and the United States but not the other Forum participants. By mid-February, it was made clear to Israel—with the United States supporting the decision—that the Forum would not meet in Morocco in March at the ministerial level, as originally scheduled.

That turned out to be a postponement, not a cancellation, but it should nevertheless be seen as an expression of unease with aspects of Israeli policy. It is not beyond repair, and the run-up to the convening of the Forum may provide an opportunity to resolve the critical remaining differences. (A final decision to convene the conference has not yet been made.)

Moroccan expectations and disappointment

At least as far as the host country is concerned, it was not the Israeli-Palestinian tension alone that led to the postponement. Dissatisfaction had been growing in Rabat, at the highest level, as Israel came to be perceived as dragging its feet over several bilateral issues—and above all, on recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara.

Given that the United States took this step in 2020 as part of the diplomatic outreach that led to the Abraham Accords, and that the UAE did so as well when it announced in October 2020 the opening of a consulate in the provincial capital, Laayoune (el-Aaiun), it was expected that Israel would soon follow suit, rather than wait for the Moroccan side to certify the reciprocal steps.

This issue remains the highest strategic and diplomatic priority for Morocco’s throne, government and public since the Green March in 1975. Due to its centrality in Moroccan national policy—on all Moroccan maps, Western Sahara is marked as an integral part of the country’s territory—it has led to the edge of war with Algeria, to an ongoing campaign against the Polisario underground and to an intense diplomatic effort, mainly vis-à-vis the United States, to secure recognition of Rabat’s claim to sovereignty.

President Donald Trump’s decision to accede to this request (against the views of key members of his administration and in Congress) was the decisive factor that enabled Morocco to join the Abraham Accords. Hence the puzzlement in Rabat over Israel’s lingering insistence that the Moroccan reciprocal steps should be secured first. In practical terms, it has been translated so far into a prolonged delay in turning the Moroccan office in Tel Aviv—which functions as a legation but lacks diplomatic status as yet—into a full-fledged embassy.

That is not to say relations are at a standstill. Tourism (including visits by tens of thousands of Israelis of Moroccan origin) is thriving. The military cooperation framework signed in November has already led to significant arms deals: Morocco recently unveiled its acquisition of Elbit’s PULS (Precise and Universal Launch System) multiple heavy rocket launchers (already supplied to Azerbaijan as well).

Economic investment and infrastructure development were at the core of discussions in the trilateral non-governmental conference (with the UAE) in Marrakech in November.

True, there are hostile sentiments in some segments of Moroccan society and a broader tendency towards sympathy with the Palestinians (while many Israelis rooted for Morocco during their spectacular run at the soccer World Cup in Qatar last year, the team occasionally displayed solidarity with the Palestinians and their flag). Nevertheless, prospects for bilateral cooperation remain bright—if and when the diplomatic barrier is crossed.

At the political level, the visit to Morocco of Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, who is of Moroccan origin—at the invitation of his Moroccan counterpart, Rachid Talbi Alami—indicates that the underlying relationship remains healthy.

Iran’s meddling in the Saharan conflict

Israel’s actions need to reflect not only the importance of the bilateral relationship but also the need to confront region-wide Iranian subversion. The Islamic Republic’s revolutionary regime has been involved in the Western Sahara conflict for decades, and its attitude toward the Moroccan monarchy is hostile. Hence, diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed in 2009, renewed in 2014 and then severed again in May 2018.

Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita saw no choice but to break relations and expel the Iranian ambassador from Rabat, given the information Morocco obtained regarding the complicity of Iran (and Hezbollah) in aiding and training the Polisario.

At about the same time, Morocco diminished its largely symbolic involvement in the fighting against the Iranian-backed Houthi uprising in Yemen. Still, it took a firm stand on the Sahara that aligned with Saudi policies toward Iran at that time.

The Saudi position, expressed by Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan in May 2022, is unqualified support for the “full sovereignty of Morocco over its entire territory, including Moroccan Sahara,” and for the Moroccan initiative to grant local autonomy to the district.

Since early this year, more and more reports indicate that Iranian aid to the Polisario has been upgraded—among other items, it may include the supply, via Algeria, of attack drones similar to those Iran has been providing to Russia. The undoing of the current deterrent balance of power may pose the danger of open warfare, which has been in abeyance since 2011. This threat, in turn, could greatly expand Israeli-Moroccan security and military cooperation, but without full diplomatic relations, it will not be easy bringing the full potential to fruition.

A significant gesture could help achieve these goals. Israel has an interest in confronting an Iranian presence on every front and demonstrating the utility of close security cooperation with Jerusalem. That would build upon the agreements already reached and signed during the reciprocal visits of the defense ministers and the chiefs of staff. It could also help unleash the full economic potential of relations with Morocco on a wide range of subjects, from gas exploration to advanced water technologies.

Israeli recognition of Moroccan sovereignty: When and how?

The necessary format for a significant diplomatic step, such as recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty in Western Sahara, is a Cabinet decision. The preparatory steps should, of course, involve a discreet understanding with the Moroccan Foreign Ministry and Royal Court as to the procedures, which could come as soon as Ohana’s visit or in the context of a state visit by President Isaac Herzog, who is formally the king’s counterpart as head of state, with all that this implies.

Prior arrangements can also ensure the reciprocal steps, specifically the upgrading of the “head of the liaison office of the kingdom of Morocco in Tel Aviv,” the current official title of Abdel Rahim al-Bayoud is defined, to the rank of ambassador, and a parallel upgrading of the Israeli representation in Rabat. Rather than wait for the Moroccans to confirm this in advance, it would be wiser to state this as an expectation once Israel makes its move. All this would render the Negev Forum meeting more valuable and enhance the overall viability of the Abraham Accords.

Originally 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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