What does the future hold for Morocco-Israel normalisation?
After a year of hefty trade and investment deals accompanied by warm official greetings, the second anniversary of normalised ties between Morocco and Israel was unexpectedly cold.
On 22 December, Rabat hosted the first post-pandemic celebration of the controversial deal. Unlike the expectations, the gala was at best lukewarm, with an array of Z-lister officials from the two states attending.
In fact, the last few months have been among the tensest in Moroccan-Israeli ties.
"The second anniversary of normalised ties between Morocco and Israel was unexpectedly cold"
Meanwhile, a sexual assault scandal involving the head of Israel’s diplomatic mission in Morocco, David Govrin, which eventually saw the Israeli official recalled, put the Moroccan state, which brands itself as a champion for women’s rights, in an uncomfortable situation.
Two years after normalisation, Moroccan-Israeli ties seem to lack both trust and clarity.
A frayed but firm bond
On 22 December 2020, Morocco officially normalised ties with Israel under US auspices. However, the Moroccan-Israeli partnership goes back to the 1960s under the reign of the late Moroccan King Hassan II.
In 1965, leaders of the Arab world at the time, along with their military commanders and the heads of their intelligence services, convened at a luxurious hotel in Casablanca to discuss one main question: whether they were prepared for war against Israel.
Former Israeli Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Shlomo Gazit has claimed that the Moroccan King Hassan, who did not trust his guests, allowed Mossad to spy on the Arab leaders’ meeting.
“It was the information mined from these recordings - that the king gave the Israeli Mossad -which helped the IDF prepare for the war to come some two years later,” Gazit told Israeli media outlet Yedioth Ahronoth in a 2016 interview.
Reports also suggest that Morocco and Israel collaborated on ‘facilitating’ the migration of thousands of Moroccan Jews to Israel in 1967.
"The second group [of Moroccan Jews] emigrated after Morocco gained independence [in 1965], and most of them did not have a desire to emigrate. They were deported, probably by a decision of the state, given the political conflict that characterised that stage of Morocco's history," the late Simon Levy, former director of the Jewish Museum in Casablanca, told Moroccan newspaper AlMassae in 2009.
Moroccan officials never addressed these numbers or claims.
However, in 1986, the late King Hassan II received the then-Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, in Morocco. Peres’ reception provoked firm condemnation by Moroccan political forces and a largely pro-Palestine population.
But under Hassan II's reign, openly opposing the King’s decisions could lead to years behind bars.
"In its latest survey, the Arab Barometer, a nonpartisan research network, reported that only 31% of Moroccans favour normalisation with Israel, dropping 10% since 2021"
In 1994, the two states pushed for a stronger partnership as an Israeli liaison office was opened in Rabat and Morocco opened a liaison office in Israel two years later.
At the time, Morocco attributed the establishment of these relations to its desire to maintain dialogue and understanding, instead of using force, to reach a just and comprehensive peace.
In 2020, Moroccan officials used the same argument but with a nationalist twist.
Back in 2000, the new Moroccan king at the time, Mohammed VI, who was trying to distance himself from his father’s pro-dictatorship era, cut official ties with Israel during the Second Intifada.
Two decades later, the Moroccan kingdom decided it was time to ‘re-establish’ ties with Tel Aviv in exchange for American recognition of Western Sahara and a promised American embassy in the disputed territory.
The decision was announced in Trump-style: a thread of tweets.
Two years later, with Trump failing to be re-elected and banished from Twitter, the American embassy project appears not to be part of Biden’s plan for the moment, with the Democratic administration giving mixed signals about the disputed territory.
So, was Moroccan normalisation with Israel a diplomatic hustle?
Moroccan political expert Soufian El-Hamdaoui argues that the Moroccan-Israeli relationship is not conditioned by the Western Sahara issue, though it is rooted in a shared culture and history.
“The coincidence of two events is not necessarily connected. The United States' recognition of the ‘Moroccanness’ of the Sahara is far from the existence of binding preconditions,” El-Hamdaoui told The New Arab.
Even though Israel is still hesitant about taking any pro-Morocco position on Western Sahara, the Moroccan-Israeli partnership has emboldened Rabat’s control over the territory and its strength in the region.
Rabat has cultivated a new ambition for high-tech drones that the Israeli partnership has helped to fulfil since signing a military referendum in November 2021.
Morocco’s drone acquisition from Israel is reported to include five different types of units: Heron, Hermes 900, WanderB, ThunderB, and Harfang.
"The Moroccan-Israeli partnership goes back to the 1960s under the reign of the late Moroccan King Hassan II"
The Kingdom’s massive military budget is predicated on its continued conflict with a well-armed Algeria that backs the separatist Polisario Front in the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
On the other hand, El-Hamdaoui perceives the second anniversary’s seeming coldness as a sign of “normality”, as Morocco now treats Israel as it would any other diplomatic partner, without extravagant galas or over-the-top greetings.
“The royal care that His Majesty king Mohamed VI gives to the Moroccan community of all religions necessitates normalising relations and allowing the liaison office to properly function in order to facilitate the (…) visits of Moroccan Jews to their homeland,” added El-Hamdaoui.
Jewish Moroccans excluded from the conversation
In its latest survey, the Arab Barometer, a nonpartisan research network, reported that only 31% of Moroccans favour normalisation with Israel, dropping 10% since 2021.
In 2020, the Moroccan state promoted the deal as a diplomatic win for the kingdom’s first national cause: Western Sahara - a disputed territory over which Rabat and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front both claimed sovereignty.
“Consolidation of the Moroccan Sahara will not be at the expense of the Palestinian cause,” promised the Moroccan king in 2020.
Amid a rising ‘Moorish’ nationalist movement, many Moroccans embraced the slogan ‘Taza (a Moroccan city) before Gaza’, vowing to put their national cause first.
"We are Moroccans, we are living in our homeland, we don't need Israel's approval to be Jewish"
Moreover, many Moroccans also believed that their country was capable of balancing ties with Israel and loyalty to the Palestinian cause.
Hit by Covid-19 and a strict quarantine less than three months after the deal, opposition to normalisation remained limited to a few Facebook posts and op-eds as media coverage became dominated by pandemic-related articles.
But as the state started easing social gathering policies, pro-Palestine protests calling for cancelling the normalisation policy have become more common on Moroccan streets,
In the post-pandemic era, the state heavily capitalised on the Jewish-Moroccan heritage of music and religious celebrations, with a heavy presence from the Israeli state.
Once numbering over 250,000 people, the Jewish community in Morocco has played a key role in influencing culture, music, tradition, and politics.
"Our celebrations won't be used to marginalise or tokenise our people, ‘brownwash’ Israeli colonialism and occupation, or erase our history of the community with Muslims in our ancestors' homelands," Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist Jewish NGO, said in a press statement in May.
Today, around 3,000 Moroccan Jews are based in the Kingdom, and some of them see these cultural and religious events as an affront to their identity and religion.
“I don’t understand that argument of the Jewish community. We are Moroccans, we are living in our homeland, we don’t need Israel’s approval to be Jewish,” Marvin, a Jewish Moroccan, told The New Arab.
“Now at every Jewish celebration, you find those Israeli officials in the first seats. Why are they there, they don’t represent us. I don’t see Saudi officials flocking to every Islamic celebration in Morocco,” added Marvin.
Meanwhile, Dominique, a Morocco-based French citizen with North African roots, was at first an optimist about Moroccan-Israeli normalisation, until he was reminded that “Israel was never about peace”.
“I supported normalisation at first, I thought it would be good for peace talks. But when the Israeli military killed Palestinian journalist Shirin Abu Akleh a few months ago, I remembered what Israel is about. That’s not what our religion is about,” Dominique, told The New Arab.
Basma El Atti is The New Arab's correspondent in Morocco.
Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma