The establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Morocco is not without precedent. In fact, the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1994 following Israel’s peace agreements with the Palestinians and Jordan, and maintained them until 2000 when Morocco severed relations due to the second Palestinian intifada.
Nonetheless, Morocco’s addition to the list of Arab states establishing formal ties with the Jewish State bolsters Israel’s standing in the region and its leading role in the system of regional alliances. Unlike the recently announced normalization with the Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, Israel and Morocco have enjoyed a rich, multi-tiered relationship of diplomatic, military, intelligence and civilian cooperation for decades. While governmental ties were clandestine, civilian ones were quite open, even expanding and deepening in recent years.
On the diplomatic level, King Hassan, the late father of King Mohammed VI, was instrumental in advancing Israeli-Egyptian peace in the 1970s. In October 1976, he secretly hosted Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin could not enjoy the fruit of this initiative because he resigned from office, but Moroccan mediation between Israel and Egypt continued.
In September 1977, Moshe Dayan, the foreign minister in Menachem Begin’s government met with Deputy Egyptian Prime Minister Hassan Touhami and two months later, President Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem. Following the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel, Hassan invested considerable energies in behind the scenes peacemaking efforts between Israel and the Palestinians. He met three times with Shimon Peres in the 1970s and 80s in a bid to promote regional peace, especially an agreement with the Palestinians, but refused to meet with Prime Ministers Begin and Shamir because he did not believe they were ideologically ready to compromise with the Palestinians.
Labor party leaders, especially Peres, were perceived as moderates inclined to advance peace, as borne out by their September 1993 signing of the Oslo agreement. In a tribute to this achievement, King Hassan hosted Rabin and Peres in Morocco.
While fearing Arab and Muslim reaction to formal Moroccan ties with Israel, he nonetheless agreed in 1994 to the establishment of “liaison offices” rather than embassies. His son has now adopted a similar decision. However, unlike King Hassan, Mohammed VI has avoided active Israeli-Palestinian mediation and has made few mentions of Israel in official speeches.
He refrained from meeting Peres when he served as President, and like his father, refused to meet with Likud party leaders Sharon or Netanyahu. The first shift in this policy occurred in September 2018, when Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita secretly met with Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
Israel and Morocco have a history of close intelligence and military ties. The Mossad set up an office in Morocco in 1963, some two years after the sinking of the Egoz, a ship that ferried Jewish immigrants to Israel in defiance of the Moroccan ban on their departure. This tragic incident and the need to organize the mass migration of Moroccan Jews to Israel prompted cooperation between Israel’s Mossad and its Moroccan counterpart (which Israel helped establish), which lasted many years.
Israel provided Morocco with military assistance against the Algerian-backed Polisario Front battling for independence of phosphate-rich Western Sahara, which Morocco took over after Spain evacuated the territory in 1975. Israel’s aid consisted mainly of advice on constructing a security fence (made of sand) and trenches.
As an IDF officer, Ehud Barak was a frequent visitor to the Sahara. When he attended King Hassan’s funeral as Prime Minister in 1999, his easy conversation with King Mohammed reflected their previous acquaintance. Throughout the years, Israel lobbied Congress unsuccessfully for US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. The Trump Administration’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the territory facilitated Morocco’s renewed relations with Israel.
Civilian ties between Morocco and Israel existed prior to the official ones and have actually expanded and deepened since official relations were severed. The Jewish Moroccan community in Israel and the small Jewish community in Morocco play key roles in this ongoing relationship. In March 2016, Morocco’s recognition of Israel’s Jewish Moroccan community as part of its diaspora was made official, designating Israelis of Moroccan origin as the second largest Moroccan diaspora after France.
The issue even came up for public debate on whether diaspora members should be allowed to vote, and if so, whether that right would apply to Moroccan Jews in Israel. An Israeli of Moroccan origin can even obtain Moroccan citizenship given that this right applies four four generations. In July 2011, the Moroccan constitution was amended to accord official recognition to Judaism, or rather to the Hebraic influence on Morocco’s national identity.
The expansion of civilian ties was made possible, inter alia, by tourism ties, launched in the 1980s and deepened with the establishment of formal relations. Flexible Moroccan bureaucracy enabled the leveraging of the deep cultural links between the people and annually increase the number of Israeli visitors to Morocco.
Some 45,000 Israelis visited Morocco in 2019 despite the absence of direct flights. On the other hand, very few Moroccans visit Israel, with only 3,500 doing so in 2019, due to the complexity of obtaining an Israeli visitor visa and the absence of a formal Israeli mission in Rabat – which is likely to be rectified soon.
Civilian cooperation in tourism and delegation exchanges, religious and heritage activity, music, films, art, sports and more, takes place both in the physical and virtual dimensions, based on shared values, identity and culture. Musical collaborations are particularly vibrant.
Both countries are key focal points of the Andalusian genre dating back to Juish-Muslim Golden Age in Spain, from where it migrated with the expelled Jews and Muslims to northern Africa, arriving in Israel in the 20th century with the large Jewish Moroccan immigration.
The flowering of Andalusian music in Israel over the past decade, as reflected in the formation of new ensembles and the performance of Andalusian works, has created a shared cultural language between musicians and artists in Morocco and its diaspora.
By accepting the conditions of international sports federations and allowing Israeli athletes to compete with their national emblems, Morocco has branded itself as a host state of tournaments and sports events, along with the attendant tourism profits. In March 2019, 10 Israelis judokas participated in the Judo Grand Prix in Marrakech, where an Israeli flag was unfurled when Timna Nelson Levy and Gefen Primo were presented with bronze medals.
Furthermore, some of the former Moroccan Jewish communities which spread around the world and lost its previous communal space in Morocco, were reunited and reemerged in virtual spaces and social media. Thanks to a deep sense of longing they have been working to preserve their Moroccan Jewish heritage which was left behind, through preservation of abandoned synagogues, restoration of Jewish cemeteries and organization of conferences and cultural events for communities spread throughout Morocco, Israel and the rest of the world.
The renewal of ties between Israel and Morocco is a natural development. It is based on a cultural and civilian foundation deeper than Israel’s agreements with the Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan and thus holds great potential for a warm relationship. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that the Palestinian issue still constitutes a significant obstacle to realizing the full potential of relations with Moroccan society and sustainable peace, making it incumbent upon Israel to advance its resolution.
Elie Podeh is a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a Mitvim Institute Board member; Einat Levi is the owner of “Connection to Morocco” and researcher at Mitvim Institute and the Forum for Regional Thinking.