The Moroccan connection

Exploring the decades of secret ties between Jerusalem and Rabat.

king hassan 248.88 (photo credit: US Dept. of Defense )
king hassan 248.88
(photo credit: US Dept. of Defense )
Soon after independence, Israel began following a "periphery doctrine" in its foreign affairs: seeking ties with Arab countries on the margins of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. No example has illustrated the wisdom of that strategy more than links with the kingdom of Morocco. Many factors explain this special relationship. In the years following their independence, both Israel and Morocco needed Western assistance to deal with domestic challenges and foreign threats, especially communism and pan-Arabism. "When Morocco became independent, its borders were wide open to hostile elements, especially Egyptian spies, who sought to build a secret infrastructure, in an effort to facilitate the Soviet penetration of North Africa," explains Shmuel Segev, former Military Intelligence officer and author of The Moroccan Connection: The Secret Relations between Israel and Morocco. "In those days, Gamal Abdel Nasser was a trusted ally of Moscow. In return for Czech weaponry and Soviet instructors, Nasser opened the gates of Africa to the Soviet Union and China. Eventually, this reality was used by Israel to convince Morocco to cooperate in the field of intelligence." Over the next few decades, Jerusalem and Rabat developed a strong secret relationship in three areas: emigration, intelligence and diplomacy. This clandestine channel would prove itself to be fruitful and ultimately lead to one of the most resounding successes of Israel's diplomacy: the visit to Jerusalem by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1977. MOROCCAN JEWRY had a long and special history for more than 2,500 years. With a population of nearly 300,000 in 1948, it was the largest Jewish community in the Arab world. It was spread throughout the country, but mainly in Casablanca and Rabat. The monarchy had established a unique relationship with its indispensable, "protected" dhimmi minority. During World War II, King Muhammad V had refused to apply the anti-Semitic laws of the protectorate imposed by the Vichy regime in France, prompting fidelity from Moroccan Jewry. However, Israel's independence and the propaganda of the Arab League under Egypt's president Nasser soon created an atmosphere of oppression and constant threats. In 1954, Mossad head Isser Harel decided to establish a clandestine base in Morocco. An undercover agent named Shlomo Havilio was sent to monitor the conditions of Jews in the country. His report was alarming: The Jews feared the departure of the French colonial forces and the growing hostility of pan-Arabism; Jewish communities could not be defended and their situation was likely to worsen once Morocco became independent. Havilio had only one solution: a massive emigration to Israel. Harel agreed. Less than a year after his report, the Mossad sent its first agents and emissaries to Morocco to appraise the situation and to organize a nonstop aliya. About 90,000 Jews had emigrated between 1948 and 1955, and 60,000 more would leave in the months preceding the country's independence. Then, on September 27, 1956, the Moroccan authorities stopped all emigration, declaring it illegal. From then until 1960 only a few thousand left clandestinely each year. When Isser Harel visited Morocco in 1959 and 1960, he was convinced the Jews were ready to leave en masse to return to Zion. Soon after, Harel replaced Havilio with Alex Gatmon as Mossad head in Morocco. A clandestine militia was created, the "Misgeret" ("framework"), with central command in Casablanca and operatives recruited across the kingdom. Its goal was to defend the Jewish communities and organize departures clandestinely. On January 11, 1961, a tragedy occurred when a small boat, the Piscès (Egoz), capsized in a storm with 44 Moroccan Jewish emigrants, half of them children. All died. A new strategy had to be found for children to be taken out legally without their parents, who would then leave clandestinely. An audacious idea was proposed by Naftali Bargiora of the Jewish Agency. "Operation Mural" was born. The Mossad, with the Jewish Agency and a humanitarian children's organization, sent David Littman, a British volunteer, to Morocco. After four months of negotiations, he succeeded beyond all expectations. With Mossad contacts, Littman (code name "Mural") organized the departure of 530 Jewish children, who left legally in five convoys under the cover of "holidays in Switzerland" and from there to Israel. Operation Mural came at a decisive moment, as the innovative "collective passports" system which Littman obtained was to be used six months later for a larger emigration that succeeded with royal approval. In the summer of 1961, the Mossad chief in Morocco, Alex Gatmon - a former Nazi-hunter - met Abdelkhader Benjelloun, the Moroccan minister of labor, secretly in Paris. The king's conditions for legal emigration were to be no involvement of any "Zionist organizations," the immediate closure of secret emigration channels and the payment of indemnities for each departure. On November 27, 1961, after Israel had paid $500,000 via the Mossad, the head of national security, Muhammad Oufkir, signed the first "collective passport" allowing Jews to leave the country legally. It was the beginning of "Operation Yakhin." The figures vary, but were between $50 and $200 per head. The total cost of the indemnities paid to the Moroccan authorities was somewhere between $5 million and $20 million ($100m. to $400m. in today's money). In the end, as a result of these secret contacts, between 1962-64, the Mossad was able to bring some 100,000 Moroccan Jews to Israel. BESIDES THE Misgeret, Harel had built a second network to reach Moroccan officials and establish secret channels on the highest levels. According to Segev: "A Moroccan Jew, who was a close friend of minister of national security Muhammad Oufkir, organized a meeting between Oufkir and the Mossad in a hideout in Paris. Nothing came out of it - Oufkir was not yet ready for any intelligence cooperation with Israel." But quietly, relations began to improve in late 1959-60, and especially after the death of King Muhammad V in February 1961 and the crowning of Hassan II. The Mossad offered to train the bodyguards for the throne. It also trained the kingdom's intelligence services, whose organization was very poor at that time - teaching them how to prevent Algerian and Egyptian agents from breaking into Moroccan embassies in Cairo and Algiers. In 1965, the Mossad under director Meir Amit found itself obliged to answer the king's call to trace the dissident Mehdi Ben Barka, a case which would haunt Morocco for decades. But contrary to enduring rumors, the Israeli role was only limited to supplying Morocco with the address of a kiosk where Ben Barka picked up his mail whenever he stayed in Geneva. Moroccan intelligence watched that kiosk and finally discovered Ben Barka's residence. However, Israel was not involved in the operation after Ben Barka left Geneva for Paris and met his tragic fate. Says Jean Baklouti, former head of the French counterintelligence agency (DST): "Ben Barka was later trapped and killed by Moroccan operatives assisted by the 7th section of the French domestic secret service (RG)." Israeli intelligence remained close to the king over the years. In the early 1970s, Israel's old contact, Oufkir, tried to conspire against the throne. He openly shared his intentions and Israel immediately warned Hassan II. The coup failed, and the king would never forget this crucial help from Jerusalem. Over the years, this secret channel kept improving, and Israel remained active in supplying Morocco with weapons and intelligence, especially related to the Sahara conflict. ON MIDDLE EASTERN issues, King Hassan II's interest in peace was not new. In the late Fifties, before his coronation, he had shocked people during a visit in Lebanon by arguing that the only solution for the enduring conflict was to make peace and incorporate Israel in the Arab League. The king was fascinated by the idea of the "reconciliation of the Semitic brotherhood," although he never expressed it in the early years of his reign, aligning his country with the anti-Israeli alliance. However, from the mid-1970s onward, Hassan II began to increasingly advocate "dialogue" and warn his Arab counterparts of the dangers of "prolonged conflicts" to their own societies. The kingdom therefore held many high-level conferences related to the Middle East, and kept the secret channel with Israel wide open. When Jerusalem began to seriously consider peace with Egypt, Morocco offered its help as facilitator. In October 1976, Yitzhak Rabin visited Morocco for that purpose, but Egyptian president Anwar Sadat found him "too weak" and didn't answer his overtures. It all changed with the election of Menachem Begin in 1977. Sadat showed his interest. Furthermore, to build a real channel with Egypt, the Mossad passed intelligence to its Egyptian counterparts through Moroccan services, warning Sadat of a Libyan plot targeting him. This deeply impressed the Egyptian leader. Soon after, Mossad chief Yitzhak Hofi travelled to Rabat, met the king and began negotiations with Sadat's deputy, Hassan Tuhami. In September 1977, a new meeting was held between foreign minister Moshe Dayan and Sadat's deputy in Rabat, proving once again that intelligence and diplomacy were be able to work with each other: "It's important to stress the Mossad's role in this episode," explains Segev, "because without Hofi, the Dayan-Tuhami meeting would not have taken place." On November 17, 1977, Sadat went to Jerusalem in a historic visit which would change the Middle East forever. More than 20 years after Israel's first dealings with Morocco, the connection between the Jewish state and the kingdom revealed its enormous potential. AND TODAY? In the fields of intelligence, but also in culture and economics (trade between the two countries is worth $100 million a year), Morocco and Israel have common interests. The fight against terrorism is also a challenge they both face daily: "The Mahgreb has much to gain by not siding in a blind partisan fashion with the rogue regimes of the greater Middle East," says Canadian-born Michael Ross, a former Mossad agent and author of The Volunteer. "Morocco should resist attempts by al-Qaida to establish a stronger foothold in North Africa." This shared past also keeps Morocco and Israel close. In March 2009, a Casablanca-based newspaper, Le Soir Echos asked for an interview and published the story of Operation Mural and the secret aliya of Jewish children. It was the first time since 1961 that Moroccans learned about David Littman and this particular episode of the Israel-Morocco secret relationship. Littman, who will be honored by the Israel Intelligence and Commemoration Center in a ceremony this summer, took the opportunity of the interview to address Moroccans with a call for action: "A solution to the Arab-Israel conflict is only possible with the help of a state trusted by both sides," he said. "Morocco lies in this very unique position. King Muhammad VI should come to Jerusalem, address the Knesset and fulfill the dream of peace of his father, the late Hassan II." In the columns of the Casablanca daily, Littman also expressed his hope that this enduring relationship between Morocco and Israel serve as an example to other countries and an encouragement to negotiators, as well as a reminder to all that despite difficulties, reconciliation can be achieved. The writer's work on Israeli-Moroccan relations was recently featured in Le Soir Echos, a daily from Casablanca, and in the Jerusalem-based Israël Magazine.