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From the Ocean to the Gulf: Normalization takes hold amidst a realignment of regional forces

By Professor Efraim Inbar, President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) and Colonel (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman, JISS Vice President. 

The Royal Moroccan communique (10 December 2020), in which HM King Muhammad VI declared his intent to establish diplomatic relations with Israel is an important development. Morocco has maintained open channels with Israel for many years and it already stands out in terms of its unique position towards the Jewish contribution to its heritage, as enshrined in the Constitution of 2011. The new pattern of normalization with Israel now extends from the Ocean to the Gulf. Morocco’s coordination with the U.S. is also a vital part of the emerging alignment of the forces of stability in the region. Israel should now do the utmost to give this breakthrough a firm grounding in policies beneficial to both peoples.

On this eventful occasion, JISS is proud to count among the members of its International Board a true friend, the Moroccan intellectual and entrepreneur Ahmad Charai – a man of both stature and grace – who among his many acts of support arranged for JISS to host a briefing in New York with Jared Kushner (and JISS VP Eran Lerman) in September 2019. Kushner, whose visit in Rabat in 2018 is mentioned by the Royal communique, has indeed earned the gratitude of many for his constant efforts to forge new and firm foundations for peace in the region.

On 10 December 2020, Israel and Morocco agreed to establish diplomatic relations – an important and welcome step in creating a new political atmosphere in the Arab-Israeli relationship. While Morocco was formally at war with Israel after 1948, the two states had open channels over the years.

Under the reign Hassan II (1961-99) the cooperation increased. The close relations between Israeli and Moroccan leaders have become a subject of discussion for many years even within Moroccan society. Israel cooperated on intelligence matters. Israeli aid for reorganizing the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces and for the building of the Moroccan Western Sahara Wall was reported in the press. Morocco hosted Israeli leaders such as Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan to meet secretly Arab counterparts in the quest for peace. Morocco was at the forefront of peace-making efforts.

It was King Hassan II who turned to Israel and the Jewish organizations for help in the struggle against the Frente Polisario, then backed by the Soviets and by Algeria and nowadays by Iran. Recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over West Sahara became another issue of cooperation.

In the wake of Madrid and Oslo, formal relations – albeit not at the level of embassies – were established, and a growing number of Israeli tourists – which up to the COVID-19 crisis reached tens of thousands a year – began to flow to Morocco, admiring its landscapes and ancient towns, and revisiting its proud Jewish past. In 1997 a Jewish Museum, the only one of its kind in the Arab world, was opened in Casablanca.

Like Hassan II, his son Mohammed VI, has continued to maintain the ties between Morocco and Israel. Despite the degrading of formal relations in 2000, following the outbreak of Palestinian violence, informal relations (including trade) persisted.

So did other, less overt, aspects of Israeli-Moroccan cooperation: among other issues, Israel is credited with providing the information that led to the exposure of Iranian subversion in the Maghreb, which in turn brought about the Moroccan decision to sever diplomatic relations with Tehran in 2018. Both, Morocco and Israel participated in February 2019 Warsaw Conference, organized by the US to signify the rejection of Iranian ambitions in the region. In January 2020, Morocco was reported to receive three Israeli drones as part of $48 million arms deal.

Meanwhile, as part of a broader re-assessment of its national identity (including the official use of the Amazigh language alongside Arabic and French), the Constitution of 2011 – in its preamble – speaks the Moroccan national identity as “forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamic, Berber [Amazigh] and Saharan-Hassanic components, nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences.” This, again, makes the Kingdom unique among all Arab countries.

Still, it took an American decision on the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara (to be followed by establishing a U.S. Consulate in Dakhla) to clinch the deal – in Trumps’ transactional style – and make Morocco the fourth Arab) country, within a few months, to move towards full normalization with Israel. As the King made quite clear, both in the communique and in a conversation with Mahmud ‘Abbas, this does not mean the abandonment of the Palestinians: what it does mean is that they are invited to come to the table, leaving behind the baggage of their past preconditions. As we have suggested elsewhere, JISS believes that Israel should also look upon these remarkable breakthroughs as an opportunity to put forward ideas for diplomatic progress, largely based upon the U.S. “Peace to Prosperity” Plan of 2020.

As the Chairman of the Jerusalem Committee of the Organization of Islamic Countries, HM Muhammad VI declared his commitment to sustain the status quo as regards the holy places, including the Temple Mount. As it happens, at this point in history, this is also the common interest of both the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the State of Israel: as against the efforts of several players in the region (and certainly the Palestinians…) to overturn the existing arrangements.

Equally important, if not more so – given the quick endorsement by Egypt and the U.A.E. – is the contribution of this step to the consolidation of the emerging alignment (in some ways, indeed, an alliance) of the forces of stability in the region. Once upon a time, min al-Muhit ila al-Khalij, “from the [Atlantic] Ocean to the [Persian, or Arab] Gulf”, was the slogan of radical, pro-Soviet pan-Arab nationalists. Now, ironically, from Rabat and Casablanca on the Atlantic coast to Abu Dhabi and Manama on the Gulf – and with Cairo, Khartoum, Jerusalem and ‘Amman in between – the same could be used to describe the partnership of forces who view totalitarian radicalism (this time in Islamist garb) as a common threat.

An Atlantic and African as well as a Mediterranean country, Morocco can make a strategic contribution in all three geo-political realms, at a time of growing tensions and challenges. As France and the U.A.E. line up in support of Egypt and Greece, and a battle of ideas is also raging over the reactions in Europe to recent acts of Islamist terror and murder, Morocco voice – moderate and sobering – should be heard.

As for Israel, it is extremely important to follow through with concrete projects and benefits. The National Security Council, in close coordination with the Foreign Ministry, should look upon this a major national, all-agency effort: visible positive effects in Morocco would hasten the decisions of other, still hesitant nations.

One intriguing option would be to broaden the scope of the EMGF, and with France (a western med country) also joining – as mentioned in Sisi’s talks with Macron – it may be wise to drop the “E” and invite Morocco to join the Mediterranean Gas Forum. Given that the Western Mediterranean forum is now largely defunct due to Moroccan-Algerian tensions, this could be a useful step toward creating a community of like-minded Mediterranean nations.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.