Morocco and Israel: The highs and lows of a blossoming friendship - opinion

It is regrettable that such a promising and genuinely friendly environment has been soured by several allegations of misconduct.

 FOREIGN MINISTER Yair Lapid, before becoming prime minister, shakes hands with Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita at the Negev Summit in Sde Boker, in March (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
FOREIGN MINISTER Yair Lapid, before becoming prime minister, shakes hands with Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita at the Negev Summit in Sde Boker, in March
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Beach Sambo is a little-known martial art that engenders huge enthusiasm among its adherents. This year, the World Beach Sambo Championships, incorporating contests in eight weight categories, took place from August 26 to 29 on the sands of Bat Yam, Israel. And this year, Morocco’s Beach Sambo team, led by Dalil Skalli, who also heads the African Sambo Federation, traveled to Israel for the first time to compete – a situation that would have been impossible two short years ago, for Morocco had severed diplomatic relations with Israel back in 2000.

The visit of Morocco’s Sambo team, an apparently minor event in the great scheme of things, in fact, symbolizes the extent to which relations between Morocco and Israel have warmed since December 2020, when Morocco signed the Abraham Accords and began the process of normalization.

This past year has seen an acceleration of the normalization process, marked by a succession of visits to Morocco by leading Israeli figures. The first-ever official visit to an Arab state by Israel’s top soldier in uniform occurred on July 19. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi arrived for a three-day stay, during which he met with Morocco’s senior military and security officials.

Three days after he departed, Israel’s Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej arrived in Morocco on a mission to expand cooperation in the field of higher education. He was accompanied by a group of seven Israeli Jewish and Arab journalists. During his time in Morocco, Frej gave a number of interviews in Arabic to leading media outlets.

That same week, Israel’s Justice Minister, Gideon Sa’ar, visited Rabat, Morocco. On July 26, he signed a judicial memorandum of understanding with his Moroccan opposite number, Abdellatif Ouahbi, aimed at promoting mutual understanding on judicial issues, including cooperation between the Sharia courts in both countries. On July 27, Saar and the president of the Moroccan Football Federation, Fouzi Lekjaa, agreed to hold a friendly game between the national youth teams. Later that day, the Israeli and Moroccan national volleyball federations signed a cooperation agreement.

No sooner had Sa’ar left, Israel’s top cop, Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai, arrived for a first official visit to Morocco. He was received in Rabat on August 2 by his Moroccan counterpart, Abdellatif Hammouchi. According to the Moroccans, the goal of the meeting was to strengthen bilateral cooperation and lay the foundations for a partnership in the security field, serving the common interests of Morocco and Israel. Media reports claimed that the parties had agreed in principle on significant steps that had never been formalized between the two countries, including the extradition of criminals, and the exchange of professional knowledge on security technologies, and fighting crime and terrorism.

Morocco-Israel (Illustrative)  (credit: Courtesy)Morocco-Israel (Illustrative) (credit: Courtesy)

Negative consequences of Morocco-Israel relations

This blossoming of the Moroccan-Israeli relationship has not occurred without some negative consequences. Relations between Morocco and its neighbor, Algeria, have historically been strained over Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara. Algeria has long supported the Sahrawis of Western Sahara who, backed by their militant body the Polisario Front, are seeking independence from Moroccan rule.

The price the United States paid to secure Morocco’s signature under the Abraham Accords, announced by president Donald Trump in December 2020, was to recognize Morocco’s claim. In doing so, America was defying the UN, the African Union and most of world opinion, which holds that Western Sahara’s future should be settled by a UN-supervised referendum of the Sahrawi people.

After the normalization deal, violently opposed by the Algerian regime, its relationship with Morocco deteriorated badly. Since mid-2021, the two countries have severed diplomatic relations, recalled their ambassadors, closed their borders and blocked their airspaces. Recent Moroccan-Israeli military agreements have especially infuriated Algeria. Its violent condemnation of them incorporated a strong antisemitic element – the same spirit that moved the Algerian government to demand that Chief Rabbi of France Haim Korsia be excluded from the delegation accompanying French President Emmanuel Macron during his recent visit to Algiers.

Algeria’s intelligence services have proved largely ineffective in their denunciations of Morocco and its sovereign, King Mohammed VI. Mohammed is extremely popular with Moroccans both at home and abroad, and has shown himself to be a progressive ruler, open to new ideas. He cherishes the historic Jewish connection to his country. In a speech on August 20, he said, “Morocco, by the grace of the Almighty, has an expatriate community of about five million people, in addition to hundreds of thousands of Moroccan Jews around the world. Moroccans abroad are quite special in that they are deeply attached to the homeland,” and he called upon Moroccans the world over, including Jews with their roots in Morocco, to support their country of origin in whatever way they can.

Meanwhile, trade between Israel and Morocco is booming. The various economic and trade cooperation agreements since normalization have resulted in a 200% increase in Israel’s exports to Morocco in 2021, compared with 2020. Overall, trade between the two countries reached $117 million (NIS 395 m.) in 2021 and the target for 2022 is $250 million (NIS 844 m.).

However, the implications of Morocco-Israel normalization go far wider and embrace the possibility of enhancing security and countering terrorism in the whole of north-west Africa and across the Sahel. An important element has been the groundbreaking air defense deal in February 2020, when Morocco agreed to pay $500 million (NIS 1.7 billion) to acquire an Israel Aerospace Industries’ Barak air and missile defense system.

The authoritative Defense News points out that Morocco has long distinguished itself among the Islamic and African nations as a leader in counterterrorism. Properly paired with Israeli counterterrorism expertise and backed by US financial support, it believes that Morocco is uniquely positioned to oppose and if necessary, act against terrorism in the Sahel and in Francophone Africa. Meanwhile, acting together, Israel and Morocco can lead the way for a partner-led security strategy for the region as a whole.

It is regrettable that such a promising environment has been soured by several allegations of misconduct – including the sexual harassment of Moroccan women – at Israel’s Liaison Office in Rabat, leading to the recall, on September 6, of Israel’s ambassador, David Govrin. Whether the allegations are sustained or disproved, this episode should surely not be allowed to disrupt the solid foundations laid in the past two years of genuine Moroccan-Israeli friendship and cooperation.

The visit to Israel of Morocco’s chief of the Royal Armed Forces, this week, confirms the continuing strength of the Israeli-Moroccan friendship.

The writer is a Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020. Follow him at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com.