Dec 15, 2021 | Amotz Asa-El
With 1,400 enemy tanks charging at them and 800 artillery pieces firing from behind those, the Israeli military units that faced Syria’s surprise attack did not know the attacking force included a Moroccan infantry brigade, as well as a battalion of 33 Moroccan tanks, half of which did not survive the battle.
That was in October 1973. In November 2021, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz was greeted in Rabat with all the fanfare of a foreign dignitary’s official visit, replete with a uniformed guard of honour at the entrance to the Defence Ministry as well as prominent coverage in all the major local media. Two dailies, the Arabic-language Ahdath Maghrebia and the French-language L’Observateur du Maroc, went so far as to publish an article by Gantz, in which he hailed the two nations’ shared history and future.
On the face of it, this trip was just a continuation of the August visit by Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid – who formally opened Israel’s mission in Rabat and met Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, with whom he left an invitation from Israeli President Isaac Herzog for King Mohamed IV to visit the Jewish state.
Yet Gantz’s visit actually represented the maturation of what was formally begun in December 2020, when Jerusalem and Rabat signed a normalisation agreement, following on from the signing in Washington that September of the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
In a meeting with Defence Minister Abdellatif Loudiyi, Gantz and his host signed a memorandum of understanding that sets the stage for Israeli-Moroccan arms deals, intelligence sharing and joint military exercises. Defence experts say this will likely lead to Moroccan purchases of Israeli drones and anti-missile systems, as well as Israeli upgrades of Moroccan fighter jets.
This is apparently what Gantz meant when he wrote in those two newspaper articles that the two countries are looking forward to jointly combatting terrorism and also working together on “border and air threats.”
Fuelled by North African, pan-Arab and Jewish circumstances, such direct cooperation between Israel and an Arab country is both dramatic and unprecedented.
The African background to the story is the longstanding conflict between Morocco and Algeria over Western Sahara.
About the size of the UK, the arid coastal territory is believed to contain natural resources like potash as well as offshore oil. In 1975, Morocco unilaterally annexed the area – which is tucked along Morocco’s southwest and is about one half the size of Morocco’s original area.
Morocco’s claims have been challenged by an independence movement, the Polisario Front, which has been backed from its inception by Algeria. The Moroccan claim has been recognised by most Arab states and also by three European Union members, all formerly communist, while Polisario has been backed by radical countries like Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Syria, but also by more mainstream counties like Kenya, Uruguay, Mexico and Peru.
The superpowers, however, have generally been either neutral or ambiguous about the conflict, with Western powers tilting toward Morocco and the Russian and Chinese blocs against it, but none fully taking sides – until last year, when then-US President Donald Trump recognised Morocco’s claim.
The American move was made as part of the successful efforts to coax Rabat to normalise ties with Israel. For Morocco, this was a priceless achievement, serving a long-term strategic cause for which the kingdom fought a war and confronted two uprisings since 1975 and also built a 2,700 km anti-guerrilla sand-wall which it calls “the security wall”.
Violence resumed last year, and Algeria severed diplomatic ties with Morocco and discontinued its gas supplies to the kingdom. This is what Morocco’s budding military alliance with Israel is primarily about.
Knowhow earned confronting Palestinian terror is relevant for the challenge Polisario poses to Morocco’s south, while Israel’s experience in conventional warfare is relevant for the challenge Algeria poses to Morocco’s east, along the 1,400 km border the two countries share.
However, beyond these North African concerns, Morocco’s new attitude toward Israel is also driven by Arab circumstances.
The so-called “Arab Spring” social upheaval that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and then spread to multiple Arab capitals has convinced Arab leaders to seek economic transformation. Failure to deliver millions of new jobs, they now realise, might result in more revolts like those that unseated four veteran Arab presidents and sparked a number of civil wars.
This new quest for economic vitality is what inspired the Abraham Accords in general, and Morocco’s new pragmatism in particular. With 36 million people and an annual per capita GDP of about US$ 8,000 (A$11,200), lower than 150 other countries. Morocco must develop economically, and it knows Israel can, and happily will, help make that happen.
Morocco’s hopes in this respect are aided by the country’s unique place in Jewish history.
Jews arrived in Morocco during the Roman era, but the country became a major Jewish centre in the aftermath of the Spanish expulsion of its Jewish population in 1492, producing famous rabbinical sages, philosophers, physicians and merchants.
Marginalised, along with the rest of the Muslim world’s Jews, while Europe underwent the industrial revolution, Morocco’s place in the Jewish future was transformed because of the Holocaust. With European Jewry decimated, Middle Eastern Jewry suddenly became a much more significant part of the global Jewish population.
Morocco, home to the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world, thus became a major centre of world Jewry.
Most of that community left for Israel during the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to quiet collaboration between King Hassan II (1929-1999) and Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency.
The king’s willingness to quietly help Israel was a by-product of Morocco’s tensions with Algeria, which resulted in a full-scale war in 1963-64. Israel paid Morocco cash for each Jew it allowed to leave, and also secretly helped Morocco modernise its agricultural sector and develop its security services.
Since then, Israelis of Moroccan descent have come to play a central role in Israeli politics, business and culture, while maintaining ties with the small Jewish community that has remained in Morocco.
This was the backdrop against which King Hassan hosted a landmark meeting in 1977 between then Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Egyptian presidential adviser Hassan Tohami – which led to Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem that year.
Morocco was similarly part of the Oslo process, having hosted the 1995 Middle Eastern economic conference, and established consular relations with Israel that year. The diplomatic ties were severed in 2000 as the second Intifada flared, but tourism persisted, with 30,000 Israelis visiting Morocco annually.
Now Royal Air Maroc has announced it will fly three weekly flights to Tel Aviv, while Israel’s El Al inaugurated flights to Marrakesh in July – to be followed by regular flights to Casablanca.
Considering the complex and rich history of Israeli-Moroccan relations since the 1950s, this is hardly the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as Humphrey Bogart put it in the film Casablanca. Even so, for millions of Israelis, it is beautiful nonetheless.