Morocco-Israel deal has wide-ranging benefits
The late King Hassan II was indefatigable in his efforts in three main policy areas: Morocco’s claim over the Western Sahara, seeking a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and his kingdom’s relationship with the US. The three issues have continued to characterize Moroccan foreign policy and it is therefore fitting that a deal was last week secured that included them all.
The White House announced on Friday that President Donald Trump and King Mohammed VI had agreed that Morocco would “resume diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel and expand economic and cultural co-operation to advance regional stability.” A more important facet of their agreement was that the US recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, with plans for a US consulate there, following those that have been opened in recent weeks by the UAE and Jordan.
The deal has been lauded as Moroccan recognition of the Israeli state, when in fact it is the resumption of relations that had previously existed. It will see the reopening of liaison offices in Tel Aviv and Rabat — which had shut in 2000, when relations broke down amid the Second Intifada — and the eventual opening of embassies, while Morocco will also grant direct flights to and from Israel for all Israelis. Despite being a vocal and diplomatically active player in support of the Palestinians and a two-state solution through the Fez Plan of 1981, Morocco has an independent relationship with the Jewish people that is exclusive to those which other members of the Arab League enjoy. A large indigenous Jewish population, coupled with as many as 1 million Israelis being of Moroccan origin, is an important facet of the Morocco-Israel relationship, which has familial, cultural and historical significance. Moroccan Jews are the second-largest Jewish group in Israel. Despite Morocco being the only Arab country in which Jewish history is taught in schools, King Mohammed VI remains the chairman of the Al-Quds Committee and a close collaborator with the Palestinian leadership in its struggle for statehood, as well as in the maintenance and protection of the holy Islamic sites in Jerusalem.
Further to last week’s announcement, the Moroccan government has been keen to underscore its commitment to the Palestinian cause. In many respects, this is why its diplomatic activity has not been met with the level of criticism that followed the Bahraini and Emirati normalization efforts. This is, however, separate to and exclusive of its own relationship with the Jewish people, which is long-standing and indeed a critical facet of Morocco’s tolerant society. The multiconfessional and multiracial fabric of Morocco is central to its identity; indeed, the pluralism that other Arab nations are only now trying to encourage has always been a fact of life in Morocco.
The relationship between the two countries has familial, cultural and historical significance.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Whether through the historic efforts of the Jewish emissaries of Morocco’s many sultans, the Moroccan government in saving its Jewish population from the Holocaust or the modern-day contribution of Jewish entrepreneurs to the Moroccan economy, the relationship is positive and deep-rooted. In fact, the discussions that took place last week even allowed for some remedy of the great tragedy of the Moroccan Jewish experience, which was their mass exodus to Israel in the 20th century. Fearing social strife that never occurred, the experience divided families and caused many Israelis to lose their centuries-long Moroccan identity and privileged societal status — only to then be treated as second-class citizens in Israel on account of their Arab-Berber heritage.
The Jewish community is not, however, the only group Morocco’s leadership and government have been keen to deal with in a protective manner. The Western Sahara has been the focus of developmental efforts as the government has sought to reinforce the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion of 1974, which affirmed “legal ties of allegiance between the Sultan of Morocco and some of the tribes living in the territory of Western Sahara” from antiquity. Given the recent outbreak of hostilities following the attacks by Polisario rebels on civilian trucking, many had feared a more widespread escalation of what was actually a greatly promising regional story of economic and human development. Following a diplomatic and at times military struggle that has lasted almost half a century, the US decision to unequivocally support Morocco’s claim is not only important with regard to the North African kingdom, but also to bringing about regional peace and the unity that has long eluded the countries of the Maghreb. For the least-integrated region in the world, a resolution to its most pressing political problem will allow for the economic and political integration for which its countries are desperate.
As he welcomed this week’s deal, Trump warmly noted Morocco’s historic role in being the first state to recognize the fledgling union. This sentiment has also been publicly shared by President-elect Joe Biden, who famously stated during his vice presidency that: “Morocco was the first nation in the world to recognize the United States of America… in December 1777. So I’ve come here to say thank you.”
The US-Moroccan relationship is not dissimilar from Morocco’s ties with the Jewish people or the Western Sahara, as it is rooted in history and also the focus of modern diplomatic efforts. The Morocco-Israel deal is a positive step toward peace on several fronts in a wider region that has been ravaged by conflict. Though resource-poor, Morocco is historically rich — a fact that continues to pay dividends for its modern efforts and, no doubt, future aspirations.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid