Moroccan normalisation with Israel: Temporary deal or permanent peace?

Director General of Israel's Population and Immigration Agency Shlomo Mor-Yosef (L) and Minister Delegate to Morocco's Minister for Foreign Affairs Mohcine Jazouli sign an agreement at the Royal Palace in the Moroccan capital Rabat. [Getty]
9 min read
14 July, 2021

On 16 June, 2021, King Mohammed VI of Morocco sent a congratulatory letter to Israel's new prime minister, Naftali Bennett. This might not have been surprising as Morocco normalised relations with Israel in December 2020. 

However, on the same day, Moroccan Prime Minister Saadeddin Othmani warmly welcomed Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas political bureau chief, who visited Morocco with a high-level delegation. 

These two events may seem contradictory, but in fact they reflect Morocco's dilemma in striking a new balance in the relationship with Israel and Rabat's commitment toward the Palestinian cause. Thus the crucial question is posed: will the normalisation of relations between Morocco and Israel help to bring a permanent peace in the Middle East, or will it become another temporary deal?

A normalisation wave

On 13 August, 2020, former US President Donald Trump announced that the United Arab Emirates and Israel agreed to normalise their relationship. A few weeks later, Bahrain joined the UAE and agreed to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. On 15 September, the three countries, Israel, UAE, and Bahrain, signed peace accords brokered by the US. 

At the time, it seemed that an unprecedented wave of normalisation between Israel and the Arab countries was about to occur. Indeed, a few months later, Morocco and Sudan joined the list. 

While these Arab countries claim that their normalisation with Israel will enhance peace in the Middle East, each has its own reasons and motives. For example, the UAE and Bahrain seek to strengthen their partnership with Israel for geostrategic, security, and economic reasons. Both countries believe that their alliance with Israel could help them counter Iran's regional influence, which they believe impacts and threatens their security. They also want to benefit from Israeli technology, particularly in the cybersecurity and intelligence domains, in order to counterbalance their regional foes and to repress domestic opposition. More importantly, normalisation with Israel helps these countries to strengthen their relationship with the US.

"The UAE and Bahrain seek to strengthen their partnership with Israel for geostrategic, security, and economic reasons"

With regard to Morocco, normalisation with Israel goes back decades. Both countries had official relations after the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993. However, the relations were halted after the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000. It thus was not a complete surprise when Morocco decided to resume its bilateral relations with Israel.

On 10 December, 2020, after President Trump announced that Morocco agreed to normalise its relations with Israel and to resume official contacts and diplomatic relations between the two countries, Morocco declared that King Mohammed promised to "facilitate direct flights to transport Jews of Moroccan origin and Israeli tourists to and from Morocco and re-open the liaison offices, which had been closed in 2002." It is noteworthy that one million Jews in Israel are of Moroccan origin and that some 50,000 Israelis visit Morocco every year.

Furthermore, the Trump Administration notified Congress of its intent to sell Morocco $1bn worth of drones and precision-guided weapons. The US also pledged to open a consulate in the city of Dakhla in Western Sahara in order to enhance economic and investment opportunities there, according to the text of the memorandum, thus recognising Morocco's claim to the disputed Western Sahara.

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On 22 December, 2020, Israel and Morocco, under the auspices of the US, began to develop the framework for their overall agreements. Four agreements were signed: the first relates to exemption from visa procedures for holders of diplomatic and service passports; the second is a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in the field of civil aviation; the third is an MOU on "innovation and the development of water resources"; and the fourth provides for reviving economic relations between the two countries through trade and investment, in addition to negotiating other agreements that frame these relations.

Morocco's impetuses for normalisation with Israel

Normalisation between Morocco and Israel can be described as a trade-off that would expand Israel's acceptance among its Arab neighbors in exchange for economic, geostrategic, and political benefits for Rabat. 

"The trilateral relationship among Rabat, Washington, and Tel Aviv could strengthen Morocco's regional position in North Africa, particularly with regard to the political and strategic competition with Algeria"

Moroccan officials believe that normalisation with Israel boosts their country's regional and global influence. First, Morocco's normalisation with Israel is a key component of a deal signed on 10 December, 2020 by Rabat and Washington in which the latter recognised the former's sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara. To be sure, the conflict over the Western Sahara has been a priority for Morocco's foreign policy for decades. At the same time, the two countries signed two MOUs in which the US pledged to invest $3bn in Morocco and the Sahara region. By recognising Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, Trump handed Rabat a gift it had been eyeing for decades.

A second incentive is that the trilateral relationship among Rabat, Washington, and Tel Aviv could strengthen Morocco's regional position in North Africa, particularly with regard to the political and strategic competition with Algeria. Before leaving office in January, the Trump Administration proposed selling as much as $1bn in arms to Morocco, including four weapons-capable MQ-9 Reaper drones along with laser-guided munitions. It also pledged to open the consulate in Dakhla - a clear invitation to other countries to establish their own consulates in the region, thus aiding Morocco in asserting its sovereignty.

Third, officials in Rabat believe that America's recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara would put more pressure on other countries, particularly those in Europe, to follow suit. Therefore, it is not surprising that Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said that the European Union should get out of its "comfort zone" and support Rabat's offer of autonomy for Western Sahara within the framework of the Moroccan state.

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Fourth, Morocco aims to strengthen its economic collaboration with Israel, which has been growing over the past few years. According to some Israeli reports, Morocco is in the top four African nations from which Israel imports goods, and it is ninth in exports with $149m worth in trade between 2014 and 2017. Furthermore, the energy sector is another area where both countries could collaborate as Morocco does not have many energy resources and would like to expand its use of renewable energy, as it has been importing about 90% of its energy since 2013. Israel also exports natural gas as well as technical expertise in the field of solar energy. With its agricultural, forestry, and fishing sector, which contributes 15% to the gross domestic product and employs some 45% of the workforce, Morocco can be a huge market for Israel's agricultural technology.

Finally, the military collaboration between Morocco and Israel has been growing over the past few decades and it is expected to continue to increase after the normalisation. According to some reports, the Moroccan air force acquired three Heron drones for $50m in 2013 that were manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries. They were delivered to Morocco through France and have been used in the Western Sahara.

A gamble without guarantees

Despite the gains Morocco might achieve from normalisation with Israel, the step remains a high-risk gamble because it does not necessarily achieve Morocco's interests as much as it achieves Israel's. 

History bears witness to that. 

"Morocco's image in the Arab world could now suffer as a result of the normalisation"

For example, normalisation between Israel and Egypt has not resulted in the improvement of socioeconomic conditions in both countries. The case of Israel and Jordan is similar. In fact, these conditions have worsened during the past four decades. While it is true that normalisation helped these authoritarian regimes to remain in power, it also created a huge gap with their own people, who still reject the normalisation. 

It is likely that Morocco will face the same fate, as most Moroccans are against the move. 

According to the latest (2019-2020) Arab Opinion Index from the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar, about 88% of Moroccans oppose diplomatic recognition of Israel, and 70% see the Palestinian issue as one that concerns all Arabs. Therefore, several Moroccan organisations and activists criticised the decision to normalise relations with Israel and rejected the agreement.

It is important to note that, for decades, Morocco was viewed as a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause especially because it served as chair of the Jerusalem Committee, which was formed in 1975 by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to protect Jerusalem from Israeli colonisation and settlements. Morocco's image in the Arab world could now suffer as a result of the normalisation.

Moroccans protest the normalization deal with Israel in Rabat on 29 November, 2020. [Getty]
Moroccans protest the normalisation deal with Israel in Rabat on 29 November, 2020. [Getty]

Furthermore, the US' unilateral recognition of Morocco's sovereignty over the Western Sahara can be costly and complicates the issue. In fact, Trump's proclamation spurred a lot of domestic criticism in Morocco, the UN, and American allies in Africa and beyond as it adds more fuel to a highly contested and disputed issue. In April, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita during a phone call that the Biden Administration does not intend to back down from recognising the "Moroccan Sahara". However, while the Biden Administration did not overturn Trump's proclamation, it is not expected to provide diplomatic or political support to Morocco in the UN Security Council regarding this issue.

Managing the damage

After the recent Israeli attack on Gaza which left 256 Palestinians dead, among them 66 children, and almost 2,000 injured, Morocco's normalisation with Israel came into question.

Some Arab pundits believe the attack was a result of the recent wave of normalisation between Israel and Arab states, including Morocco, as it gave Israel political cover to continue its colonial policies toward Palestinians. The anger among Arabs, particularly the youth, at Israel's policies against Palestinians was unprecedented. Thousands of Moroccans protested widely following Israel's deadly assault on Gaza; they chanted against Israel and denounced the Arab governments that normalised relations with Israel, including Morocco's.

"Some Arab pundits believe the attack was a result of the recent wave of normalisation between Israel and Arab states, including Morocco, as it gave Israel political cover"

To quell public anger against Israel and to lessen criticism of its normalisation with Tel Aviv, Rabat officially condemned Israel's "unacceptable" violations in Jerusalem and it allowed protesters to gather and protest against Israel during the war on Gaza in May. 

Furthermore, Prime Minister Othmani officially invited Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to visit Rabat with a high-profile delegation; Othmani and Moroccan government officials warmly welcomed them. King Mohammed VI also hosted a dinner for Haniyeh and his delegation in a guesthouse usually reserved for Morocco's senior guests, despite the fact that the king's policies on Palestine are closer to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's position than Hamas's. These were signs of Morocco's support of the Palestinian cause, especially after the recent Israeli war on Gaza.

Peace in the Middle East will not be achieved as long as the root causes of the Palestinian issue are not addressed, even if all the Arab states normalised relations with Israel. Therefore, it is premature to assume that the normalisation agreement between Morocco and Israel constitutes one step toward a permanent peace in the region. This is a fact that domestic, regional, and global actors need to realise and recognise.

Khalil al-Anani is a Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. He also serves as Associate Professor of Political Science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies in Qatar.

This article was originally published by our friends at Responsible Statecraft and Arab Center DC.