RABAT – One of the challenges of being an Israeli ambassador just about anywhere is combating anti-Israel narratives in the media. The challenge is even greater in the Arab world.
Israel’s Ambassador to Morocco David Govrin has worked hard on that front in recent weeks.
Relations between Rabat and Jerusalem “very quickly returned to normal” after Operation Guardian of the Walls last year. Govrin expects the same after recent rioting by Palestinians at al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount and the killing of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh the day before his interview with The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, however, they still “make the development of ties more difficult.”
“The public in Morocco gets most of its information in French and Arabic, and a lot of the reports, especially in Arabic, are lies that incite and provoke,” Govrin lamented. “A large segment of the media reports were fake news, which makes it hard to explain the situation.”
The ambassador pointed to “conspiracy theories,” such as that Israel plans to change the status quo on the Temple Mount.
“We totally denied this and emphasized that the prime minister and foreign minister have no intention to change it, because we are very sensitive to the circumstances and don’t want an escalation,” he said. “We emphasized that a group of terrorist extremists took the law in their hands to desecrate [al-Aqsa] with violent acts and tried to prevent most of the Muslims arriving from fulfilling their right to pray on the Temple Mount. In the end, they should remember that about 100,000 Muslim worshipers ascended the Mount and prayed.”
Govrin is in constant contact with the Moroccan authorities and journalists, in addition to members of the public through social media. He said the most important thing to do is to relay trustworthy information and build trust. One way he does this is through his active Twitter account. In addition, the Israeli mission in Morocco is working on building a new website, to be launched in the coming weeks.
“The Moroccan public deeply identifies with the Palestinians. It’s a sensitive matter, and King Mohammed VI is the head of the Jerusalem Committee of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. That is expressed in the official stance of Morocco that wants an independent Palestinian state on 1967 borders, including east Jerusalem, alongside the State of Israel,” Govrin explained.
At the same time, the Palestinians do not overshadow Israel-Morocco relations, but rather the subject “comes up occasionally, mostly in times of crisis.”
“The Palestinian matter is not at the center of the public agenda in Morocco,” Govrin said. “In internal policy, the central matters are health, education and economic development, and in foreign policy, the most important matter is the Sahara.”
A Moroccan political activist and human rights advocate, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to tensions following the killing of Abu Akleh, said recent clashes between Israel and the Palestinians “have more of an influence on a media level, because a lot of the media in Morocco is pro-Palestinian and Moroccans have a lot of sympathy for the Palestinian cause.”
“The official government level is separate,” she said. “The Abraham Accords are here, they are a reality, government collaboration is continuing and official diplomatic ties are still ongoing.”
Renewed ties between her country and Israel “improved really fast, based on putting aside geopolitical differences and past conflicts and focusing on what Israel and Morocco can do,” she said.
Israel and Morocco reestablished diplomatic relations in December 2020. The countries had secret diplomatic relations for decades, and previously exchanged liaison offices in 1995, following the Oslo Accords. Rabat cut ties with Jerusalem in 2000, amid the Second Intifada.
Deep cultural and familial ties between Morocco and the approximately million Israelis with roots in the North African state continued throughout, and even before the renewed normalization, tens of thousands of Israelis visited Morocco in recent decades
Govrin is an experienced diplomat with decades of experience working on Israel’s ties with Egypt and Jordan, among other countries, but being stationed in Morocco is a unique experience, he said on Thursday.
“It’s very special to be in Morocco, and I’m not biased. I don’t have Moroccan roots,” Govrin quipped. “The feeling is that they want us here, they like us and they are embracing us.... The Moroccan hospitality is extraordinary and it is nice to be in a place where tolerance and coexistence are very deep values.”
Plus, opening a new embassy in the Arab world is not something that happens every day. The Israeli office in Rabat is not yet an official embassy, but Govrin said the change in status is on the way.
On the security front, Govrin said that “Morocco, Israel and the US see eye-to-eye about the regional threat Iran poses, and therefore cooperate.”
Morocco cut diplomatic ties with Iran over its support for the Polisario Front, which challenges Rabat’s sovereignty in the Western Sahara.
Govrin quoted Foreign Minister Yair Lapid who spoke of “a new regional security architecture” between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan and Egypt.
“There is a growing recognition by states in the region, including Israel, that the best way to deal with the Iranian threat is to work together,” he said. “There is an understanding we have to unite forces to prevent the destructive actions by Iran.”
US recognition of Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara was a “significant incentive,” but relations between Israel and Morocco were not only built on that, the ambassador said. He cited Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, who said in the Negev Summit last month that ties between the countries are ones of conviction, not interests.
Govrin praised Morocco and King Mohammed VI’s approach to Jewish-Muslim coexistence, pointing out that the country’s 2011 constitution recognized Judaism as one of Morocco’s historic cultures.
“In most countries in the Middle East, when they talk about tolerance and coexistence, it’s abstract. Here, it’s very demonstrable. Coexistence between Jews and Arabs is very clear... children play together and families have meals together,” he said.
Israel and Morocco have signed about 20 different memoranda of understanding in areas including trade, economics, security and others.
Two areas for which there is enthusiasm in Morocco is Israeli hi-tech and culture. Govrin spoke with the Post in the framework of an Israeli delegation on those two topics, via the NGO Sharaka, which seeks to build people-to-people ties between Israelis and Abraham Accords states.
“There is a great interest in Israeli technology,” Govrin said. “They don’t just want to buy a product on a shelf; they want to learn how to develop capabilities. They are looking for cooperation and training for the long term.”
When it comes to culture, there are collaborations between institutions of shared culture, such as a concert of the Andalusian Orchestra of Ashdod in Rabat last month, attended by 1,500 people, but Govrin says there is also curiosity about Israeli culture more broadly.
“Moroccans want to understand Israel’s diversity, not just connect with those who are from Morocco,” the ambassador said. “We are in contact with the Culture Ministry to see how we can produce movies together, translate literature and bring Israeli plays to Rabat.... The only obstacle is the budget.”