Israel has been hoping to warm its relations with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region for years, although such relations have not developed even with countries with which Israel has signed peace agreements. This may indicate the need for a different approach, one that begins internally within the Israeli society and that follows the long trail of its roots in the region. Such an approach could serve as a compass that can direct us to where prosperous models of civic ties used to be or can be found today. One such place is Morocco, a country to which the Moroccan Jews who live in Israel have been longing, although Israel and Morocco have not maintained diplomatic relations since the Second Intifada broke out in October 2000.
The relations between the two countries in 2019 emphasize that whereas diplomatic ties remain “stuck,” the warm people-to-people ties continue to expand and deepen. In terms of diplomacy, despite the developments following the Deal of the Century and attempts to promote official Israel-Morocco ties, Morocco remains reserved and cautious. Morocco participated in the June 2019 Bahrain workshop at which the economic aspects of the Trump plan were presented, but was represented only by mid-level officials, as were most other Arab states invited to the event.
In February 2019, media reports indicated that Prime Minister Netanyahu was planning to visit Morocco, but the Moroccan government denied them. In December 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Morocco and was scheduled to meet King Mohammed VI. According to Israeli media, Pompeo and the king were supposed to discuss the Iranian threat and normalization of ties with Israel. Ultimately, Pompeo cut short his Morocco visit and the meeting with the king was cancelled. The only official reaction was a denial by senior American officials that normalization was on the agenda; the officials even accused the Israeli media of publishing a leak prompted by domestic Israeli interests and nothing more.
Economic cooperation between Israel and Morocco remained fairly limited in 2019, with most contacts conducted through intermediaries. A notable exception was tourism, with the estimated number of 45,000 Israelis visiting Morocco this past year. More Israelis visit Morocco independently, which promotes direct people-to-people contacts. Several unofficial reports have indicated that the national carrier El Al and the “Flying Carpet” tourism company intend to launch direct flights between the countries. The situation of Moroccan tourism to Israel remains fairly grim, with only 3,000 Moroccans visiting Israel in 2019. This meager number largely stems from a series of bureaucratic and economic obstacles they face and often must travel several times abroad to arrange the visa.
IN CONTRAST to the limited diplomatic and economic cooperation are the noticeable constant and consistent people-to-people ties in areas such as Moroccan Jewish heritage, music, cinema, art, sports and more. These ties are based on common values, identity and Moroccan culture. The civic ties take place in two realms. One is the physica,l which includes Morocco, Israel and the Moroccan diaspora around the world. The other is the virtual space, which encourages new contacts, maintains existing ones, and enables discourse and greater visibility. Communities active on social media link the Moroccan diaspora through a sense of shared nostalgia. One example is the virtual documentation communities seeking to preserve the Jewish heritage of Moroccan towns and villages. The Jews of Demnat community is particularly active, with members documenting their common roots, visiting, meeting with local officials and collaborating to restore the Jewish cemetery and hold an international conference commemorating the Moroccan Jewish heritage of Demnat.
The Jewish community in Morocco is one of the pillars of civic relations. Over the past year, several key events indicate some sort of a reawakening. In April 2019, the King instructed that elections will be held for Jewish community institutions. Such elections have not been held for 50 years and they are supposed to address the problem of centralization of Jewish community institutions and to awaken it. In December 2019, channel 2M broadcasted a Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony in Casablanca attended by over 700 guests. That same month, the king attended the inauguration of Bayt Dakira, a Jewish cultural and historical center in Essaouira, a project initiated by the king himself and by Andre Azoulay, his senior adviser.
In the field of cinema, the September 2019 Haifa International Film Festival included three Moroccan movies in its program. About a week before the festival, the anti-Israel boycott movement criticized the films’ participation in the event. As a result, the screening of Apatrid was cancelled, but the two other films were screened before packed audiences.
In the music world, ties are particularly notable in Andalusian arena, with Morocco and Israel currently the main hubs of contemporary Andalusian music. The rise of Andalusian music in Israel over the past decade, as reflected in performances of Andalusian ensembles, creates a common cultural language with artists and musicians in Morocco and its diaspora. In October 2019, for example, at the 16th Andalusian Atlantic Festival in Essaouira, Jewish and Muslim artists and musicians performed together. The opening session of the festival was conducted in four languages, including Hebrew, due to the growing number of Hebrew-speakers in attendance.
OTHER EXAMPLES include the performance of Les Femmes De T'touan, a Moroccan women’s orchestra, at the Festival Mediterranee in Ashdod last November; and the performance of the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra at the Andalussiat Festival in Casablanca in December 2019. The Andalusian Orchestra of Ashdod was recognized in 2017 as a national Israeli orchestra. The limits of musical cooperation were revealed, however, when a performance by famed Moroccan Andalusian singer Marouane Hajji was cancelled following a round of Israeli-Palestinian violence on the Gaza border last November, which generated harsh criticism in Morocco.
In sports, Morocco – unlike other states in the region, such as Tunisia and Algeria – accepted the conditions set by international sports federations for Israeli athletes to compete under the Israeli flag and in their national uniforms. In return, Morocco gets to host international competitions and sports events and enjoys international recognition, tourism revenues, promoting its image as a host state. In March 2019, 10 Israeli judokas took part in the Judo Grand Prix Tournament in Marrakesh. Competing with Israeli symbols, Timna Nelson-Levy and Gefen Primo won a bronze medal and the Israeli flags were flown during the awards ceremony.
Israel-Morocco relations over the past year emphasize the gap between the limited scope of formal cooperation and the depth and warmth of the civic and cultural ties between the people. The civic ties are occurring on a parallel cultural space and mostly based on shared Moroccan culture and values. Nonetheless, the potential of these ties cannot be fully met due to the absence of official infrastructure for cooperation given the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If Israel wishes to promote such warm civic ties with other countries in the region, an important insight that can be learnt from the Israeli-Moroccan case, is that it goes from the bottom up. To do so, Israel must first find the MENA region within itself. It is not a matter of a past-oriented nostalgia, but a direction for a possible future.
The writer is a researcher at Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking. An entrepreneur, she founded “Connection to Morocco” to promote people-to-people ties. She is a fellow at the Mandel Institute Program for Leadership in Jewish Culture.