How the Gaza war could upend Morocco-Israel normalisation
On the anniversary of the normalisation deal with Israel this year, Rabat was silent but Moroccans were roaring.
Thousands of people took to the streets across the country on 10 December to call for an end to cooperation agreements with Tel Aviv and demand that the Israeli liaison office in Rabat be closed.
It was one of many protests in Morocco that have repeatedly drawn thousands of people since Israel’s war on Gaza began.
“The people want the end of normalisation,” chanted a crowd in front of Morocco’s parliament.
"Since Israel's war on Gaza began, something has shifted in the Moroccan street"
Three years ago on the same day, then US president Donald Trump broke the news in a series of posts on Twitter, now X, that a new Abraham accord between an Arab state and Israel had been agreed.
“Another HISTORIC breakthrough today! Our two GREAT friends Israel and the Kingdom of Morocco have agreed to full diplomatic relations - a massive breakthrough for peace in the Middle East!” Trump wrote.
In the same thread, Trump announced US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.
The deal was one of his last rushed decisions before leaving office. But for Moroccan officials, it was a victory, a ‘diplomatic triumph', and for a long time many Moroccans believed it, or at least, feared to say otherwise.
'No longer afraid'
"We were silent. Everyone was afraid," Nabila Mounib, head of the opposition socialist party, said as she recalled the atmosphere before Israel’s war on Gaza.
Tying normalisation to the recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara had led to critics of the deal being labelled as ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the national cause’.
Amid the rising rivalry with Algeria, the Polisario Front’s brief ceasefire breach, a growing alienation from the ‘Arab world’, and surging nationalist movements, many Moroccans came to believe that normalisation was a justified step.
“Taza (a Moroccan city) before Gaza,” became a trending hashtag and slogan after Rabat and Tel Aviv’s deal, stressing that the motherland should always come first.
“A need of protection, of camaraderie, and fear of the unknown was cultivated in us by the media,” Abdelhay, a 56-year-old retired employee and self-proclaimed ex-normalisation supporter, told The New Arab.
According to Arabometer, 41% of Moroccans favoured normalisation in 2021. It declined to 31% in 2022. Still, it is one of the highest pro-normalisation rates in the MENA region.
After normalisation, Rabat and Tel Aviv focused heavily on the Moroccan-Israeli community of around one million people and the shared Jewish-Moroccan history between the two states.
In fluent Darija dialect, Meir Ben-Shabbat, National Security Adviser of Israel, took to the stage after signing the normalisation accord and said, "Our Moroccan brothers, peace be upon you, and may God increase your goodness".
"Tying normalisation to the recognition of Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara had led to critics of the deal being labelled as 'traitors' and 'enemies of the national cause'"
Ben-Shabbat, who has Moroccan roots, ended his speech with 'Lah Yabrek Fi Aamer Sidi', a salute Moroccans use to express gratitude to their King.
“Such PR moves made many Moroccans feel some kind of brotherhood with Israelis,” said Hamza, an engaged pro-Palestine activist, as he spoke about what he deemed “cultural propaganda”.
However, since the war on Gaza began, something has shifted in the Moroccan street. Moroccan groups against normalisation, which used to lead limited sit-ins, led a "million march" blocking the Mohammed V square in Rabat, an unprecedented event since the Abraham Accords.
"Those who support normalisation with the Israeli entity are a discordant minority within Moroccan society, which breathes the Palestinian cause," Abdul Rahim Al-Sheikhi, former head of the Islamist movement of Unification and Reform, told The New Arab.
"Revoking normalisation is a basic demand that must be implemented, and we are continuing with our demands as Moroccans, and we will not stop until they are fully achieved," Abdel Qader Al-Alami, a member of the National Action Group for Palestine, told The New Arab.
The end of the road for normalisation?
“The limit of (our ties with Israel) is the sky,” said Morocco’s foreign minister Nasser Bourita to a crowd of journalists on 22 December 2021, marking the first anniversary of Rabat and Tel Aviv’s normalisation deal.
After three years of hefty trade and military cooperation, though bumpy diplomatic ties, Tel Aviv and Rabat were finally set to launch full-on celebrations of their partnership this year.
On 17 July, Israel recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, a step Rabat had been pushing for since 2020, which was, reportedly, the sole condition for the North African Kingdom to open a diplomatic office in Tel Aviv.
However, everything turned to chaos after the start of the Gaza war.
On 17 October, Israeli officials in Rabat flew to Tel Aviv for “security reasons.” Meanwhile, Moroccan officials avoided public statements, limiting their official position to a few press releases briefly condemning the violence on both sides.
Rabat’s ties with Tel Aviv go back years before official normalisation. However, Rabat has always maintained a strategy of small steps, matching the movement of the Moroccan street.
Last May, the French daily Le Monde published an article entitled 'Between Morocco and Israel, the coming out of a very special relationship,' arguing that the two states have maintained ties for the past six decades but have finally stepped into the light.
"Those who support normalisation with the Israeli entity are a discordant minority within Moroccan society, which breathes the Palestinian cause"
This time, everything depends on how long the Israeli war on Gaza will last, according to a report by World Politics Review.
“It is unlikely that the current crisis will end the Moroccan-Israeli normalisation process. However, if the war continues for months with a high number of casualties, this will put the Moroccan state in a critical position that may affect normalisation, and may even lead to its retreat,” it said.
Over seventy days, Israel has killed nearly 20,000 Palestinians in Gaza, 70% of whom are women and children. Rabat, meanwhile, has yet to speak up on the status of its ties with Tel Aviv.
Basma El Atti is The New Arab's correspondent in Morocco.
Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma