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Morocco’s normalisation with Israel is nothing new

December 15, 2020 at 10:26 am

Moroccans protest the normalisation deal with Israel in Rabat, Morocco on 29 November 2020. [Jalal Morchidi/Anadolu Agency]

The normalisation agreement between Israel and Morocco — as announced by the US — is nothing really new, but has simply exposed decades of relations between the two countries. These include secret axes, related to Morocco’s internal affairs or its relations with neighbouring countries, serving Israel first and foremost with the aim of consolidating its presence in the region.

US President Donald Trump tempted King Mohammed VI to reveal his country’s more secretive ties with Israel in exchange for recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. Serge Bardugo, the leader of Morocco’s Jewish community, met with Israeli and American Jewish leaders specifically for this purpose. Meanwhile, Yassin Mansouri, the Director of Morocco’s external intelligence agency (DGED) and a friend of the King, met with his Israeli counterpart Yossi Cohen, the head of Mossad.

Morocco and Israel have far-reaching security coordination, and have focused on strengthening their contacts since the Moroccans built a 1,500 km border wall and checkpoints in the 1980s with the help of General Ehud Barak, the former head of the Israeli army and ex-prime minister.

Years ago, the Moroccan King issued a royal decree to allow the Jewish community to hold free elections for the first time in 50 years, as a positive and symbolic step to give official legitimacy to 2,500 Moroccan Jews by granting them nationality. This was one week after the appointment of Rabbi Yashiyahu Pinto of Ashdod, in Israel, to a prominent position within the Moroccan Jewish community; he has contacts within the Royal Palace in Rabat and close relations in the United States. All roads eventually lead to Washington.

READ: Algeria tells Morocco, ‘Mutual recognition between occupiers is useless’

When Mossad carried out a secret operation for the Moroccan Jews in the 1950s, King Hassan II knew about it, and started sending thousands of them to Israel. Mossad’s work started early in Morocco and North Africa, in 1954 in fact, when the Arab revolutions against the colonial French started and thousands were killed. At that point, the Israeli security service was alerted to ensure the protection of Moroccan Jews.

At that time, the head of Mossad, Issar Harel, was told by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to establish a secret operations unit in North Africa to protect the Jewish community there, estimated back then at 600,000. At the end of 1955, Mossad deployed seven of its North Africa security units in Marrakech, Casablanca and Tangiers in Morocco; Oran and Constantine in Algeria; and in Tunis. Their mission was to recruit spies from the Jewish community. The King agreed to allow 6,000 Jews to move to Israel, but the Jewish intelligence officers, who had relations with the Moroccan security services, transferred 13,000.

A growing number of countries in the MENA region are normalising ties with Israel - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

A growing number of countries in the MENA region are normalising ties with Israel – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

In 1956, Morocco allowed Mossad to bug the rooms used by the delegations at the Arab summit in Casablanca, including those of political and military leaders. That gave Israel an unprecedented opportunity to eavesdrop on Arab plans prior to the 1967 war, which was regarded as a great achievement of Israeli intelligence.

Morocco also asked the Mossad to locate opposition activist Mehdi Ben Barka. He was ambushed in Paris, where the Moroccans and the French kidnapped and tortured him to death in 1965. Then Mossad agents got rid of his body, which has never been found.

READ: As Israel and Moroccan Jews celebrate new ties, others are critical

A joint Moroccan-Israeli intelligence alliance was also established to confront Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and organise the migration of Moroccan Jews to Israel. In the 1970s, bilateral relations were further enhanced as a result of Morocco’s prominent role in the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

In the early 1990s, the Oslo Accords signed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Israel shed light on the latter’s ties with Morocco after years of secrecy. In 1994, the two countries opened joint liaison offices, but since the outbreak of the second Intifada in October 2000, there have been no overt diplomatic relations.

Israel has focused primarily on encouraging tourism, culture, music, cinema, higher education and sports, as well as the preservation of the Jewish heritage in Morocco. Student exchange programmes have been arranged, and Andalusian music bands have performed in Israel. An Israeli delegation took part in a conference about the Jews of Morocco in Marrakech, as well as the creation of the Mimoun Centre for the preservation of Jewish heritage in the Moroccan city of Essaouira. Despite all of this, there have still been incidents of the Israeli flag being burned by Moroccan supporters at sports events.

Around 45,000 Israelis visit Morocco annually, while 35,000 Moroccan tourists go to Israel despite it being difficult to get a visa. With no direct flights between Rabat and Tel Aviv, El Al and Royal Air Maroc have a cooperation agreement.

READ: Oman welcomes Morocco, Israel normalisation

Morocco supplies Israel with agricultural products such as sardines and oils, while the latter exports agricultural knowledge and technology such as irrigation systems to Moroccan farmers. There is an Israeli Facebook page dedicated to Moroccan farmers, and Israeli farmers have plantations in Morocco for the production of dates, olive trees, almonds and citrus fruits.

There is already a lot of active cooperation in the cultural and artistic fields, as well as research. In June 2018, three Moroccan delegations and some representatives of civil society arrived in Israel for dialogue with their Israeli counterparts. Israeli delegations have visited Morocco in recent years to take part in events such as the 2016 International Climate Summit in Marrakech, a judo championship in Agadir and the 2017 meeting of parliamentarians from Mediterranean countries in Rabat.

From the Israeli standpoint, it is important to reconcile with the countries of the region. However, making peace with Jordan and Egypt is still limited to political leaders. Hence, the popular model of Israel-Morocco rapprochement could inspire other Arab countries. The reality on the ground in Morocco, meanwhile, doesn’t reflect normalisation, with the emergence of dissenting voices and popular movements that reject the agreement with Israel.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.