Defense Minister Benny Gantz arrived in Morocco on November 24 to sign a military cooperation agreement between the two countries. To date, no other Arab state has publicly signed a military agreement with Israel. Even Egypt and Jordan, as well as other Arab states that maintain security cooperation with Israel, do so clandestinely.
Turkey and Iran (until the 1979 revolution) also maintained close military ties with Israel, but always in secret. It was only after an agreement with Turkey was leaked to the media in 1996 that Israeli-Turkish cooperation became public, but it was severed in the early years of the 2000s.
Israel’s relationship with Morocco is long, rich and multidimensional, consisting of diplomatic, intelligence, military and civilian cooperation. While official ties were conducted in secret, the civilian ones were partly public and even expanded and deepened in recent years. Cooperation goes back to the 1960s against the backdrop of shared threats, first and foremost from Egypt under former president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Israel also helped Morocco against another shared enemy, Algeria. Arranging the clandestine Jewish immigration from Morocco to Israel also led to closer security ties. The cooperation was led by the Mossad’s Tevel department that maintains ties with countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations. What is more, from the 1970s, King Hassan II, father of the current monarch, mediated in secret between Israel, Egypt, Syria and the PLO. Other than the mediation with Egypt that led to then-president Anwar Sadat Sadat’s Jerusalem visit, his other mediation efforts failed.
Israel and Morocco are not known to have cooperated widely on military affairs. Israel is known to have helped Morocco in its struggle against the Polisario movement fighting for independence of Western Sahara. Israeli aid consisted mostly of advice on erecting a security fence in the Sahara area of which Morocco took control. Former prime minister Ehud Barak was one of the officers known to have visited the Sahara. Israel lobbied the US Congress and administrations for years to advance recognition of Morocco’s annexation of Sahara, but to no avail.
Unlike other Arab states, the long-term Moroccan relationship with Israel was not only the result of shared interests, but also stemmed from the role of Moroccan Jewry in Israel and the Diaspora in general (and especially in France). Morocco always prided itself on the place of the Jews, Judaism and Hebrew language in its tradition and history.
Israel and Morocco first established relations in 1995 following the signing of the Oslo Accords, but these were severed following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Relations were renewed following the Abraham Accords normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain in the fall of 2020. King Mohammed VI was persuaded to take this step not only because of the Gulf precedent but mostly because of the US reward – recognition of Moroccan control of Sahara.
THE PACE of normalization between Israel and Morocco since relations were renewed has been a favorable surprise. Within a year, several diplomatic agreements were signed, bilateral working groups were formed and several high-level visits were held, such as the visit of Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz. Many activities have also taken place in the civil society arena. In fact, normalization in this field preceded the official peace. If cooperation between people is the strongest indicator of a “warm” peace, then Israeli-Moroccan relations fit the bill.
The military agreement is reminiscent of the agreement signed with Turkey in the 1990s. It includes exchange of security information, links between the two sides’ defense industries – the significance of which is mostly in the Moroccan acquisition of Israeli arms and equipment – and joint military exercises. Israel’s interest in signing a public military agreement with Morocco is ostensibly obvious because it is aimed at bolstering Israel’s ties and standing in the Middle East in general and against Iran in particular.
What is more, the Defense Ministry, which is in charge of the military and of military intelligence, appears to want to develop an independent relationship with security officials in Morocco without being dependent on the Mossad, which has always been the main conduit for relations between the two states. The agreement formally anchors the military cooperation.
In contrast with the Israeli obsession with outing its clandestine relationships, that question is what led the king to this decision given that Morocco could have continued maintaining behind-the-scenes ties with Israel. One reason for the decision is Morocco’s desire to deter its rich eastern neighbor Algeria that has for decades supported its rival Polisario movement. A second reason is the desire to expand the strategic dialogue relating to shared threats, including terrorism. And perhaps most important of all, Morocco seeks to demonstrate to the Biden administration its commitment to the normalization process in order to ensure its implementation of former president Donald Trump’s decision on the Sahara.
Pockets of resistance to normalization exist in Morocco, led by the Moroccan Front for Supporting Palestine and Against Normalization, established in 2013. The center raises funds, organizes conferences and seminars to raise awareness of the Palestinian struggle, operates a lobby in the Moroccan parliament, arranges demonstrations in support of the Palestinians and encourages anti-Israel boycotts.
Following the signing of the normalization agreements, protests were held in several cities and condemnations were posted on Twitter under the hashtag “normalization is treason.” It is hard to assess the numbers and weight of the normalization opponents; few showed up for the most recent demonstration on November 24 outside Morocco’s parliament. The palace, too, appears to be trying to tone down the dissent.
The Israel-Morocco military agreement is an important achievement, all the more so because Israel was not required to pay for it. One should not rush to conclusions about other arenas and states, because one should remember that Israeli-Moroccan relations were a special and different case, and remain so to this day.
The writer teaches in the Islamic and Middle East Studies Department of Hebrew University and is a board member of the Mitvim Institute.