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Morocco and Israel: A disaster underscores how the Abraham Accords have changed the region

Sep 19, 2023 | Alana Schetzer

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Following Morocco’s devastating earthquake on September 8, the Israeli Government sprang into action to offer assistance.

At the time of publication, more than 2,900 people were confirmed dead, with another 5,530 people injured across the North African country. The bustling tourist city of Marrakesh and isolated communities in the High Atlas mountains, in central Morocco, were the areas hardest hit by the 6.8 magnitude earthquake.

Within hours of the natural disaster, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu instructed “all government bodies and forces to provide any necessary assistance to the people of Morocco, including the preparations for sending an aid delegation to the area.”

“The people of Israel extend their hands to our friends, the people of Morocco, at this difficult time and pray for their well-being,” Netanyahu added. “We will help in any way we can.”

With urgent search and rescue efforts underway across Morocco, an emergency relief mission comprised of Israel Defence Forces troops and medical experts from the Magen David Adom rescue service, armed with medical supplies and equipment, was approved and immediately sent to Morocco. It landed just 24 hours after the earthquake struck. The first mission began search and rescue efforts straight away, while the second mission later established a field hospital.

Multiple independent Israeli NGOs, including IsraAID, SmartAID, United Hatzalah and NATAN Worldwide Disaster Relief, also dispatched teams armed with aid to assist Moroccans affected by the earthquake. Collectively, the teams assisted with search and rescue efforts, providing urgent medical care, clean water, solar power energy units, and telecommunications systems.

Israel’s quick response was noted even by those who don’t usually portray the country in a positive light, such as the Australian Arabic language news site, El-Telegraph. The paper highlighted the difference between Israel’s response to that of its Arab neighbours. While Israel immediately greenlit sending concrete help, the leaders of Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sent only words of condolences and solidarity. (Note: Both Qatar and the UAE later offered search and rescue teams)

The Abraham Accords – a new beginning

Israel and Morocco have a unique relationship that, thanks to the links forged by Morocco’s once extensive Jewish community, has roots dating back thousands of years, but was only converted to full diplomatic relations a few years ago.

In 2020, along with three other Arab states – the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Bahrain – Morocco signed the historic Abraham Accords with Israel, which created diplomatic relations, opened bilateral trade and official tourism, and much more. Signing the Accords allowed Israel to take yet another step out of its regional isolation. And for Morocco, the Accords signalled the country was “intent on increasing its strategic importance on the world stage, particularly in North Africa.”

More recently, Israel took a major step to strengthen that relationship by formally recognising Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in July 2023, making it just the second nation to do so, after the United States. Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said the decision “will strengthen relations between the countries and the nations and advance regional stability.”

Morocco annexed the sparsely populated desert, once a Spanish colony, in stages between 1975 and 1979. Its ownership has been disputed by the Polisario Front, which claims to represent the indigenous Sahrawi people and has the support of Algeria.

Such recognition was reportedly a pre-condition for Morocco opening an embassy in Israel. Following the announcement, Moroccan King Mohammed VI extended an invitation to Netanyahu to visit the country. If the visit goes ahead, it will be the first Israeli prime ministerial visit to Morocco since the two states normalised relations.

However, even in the absence of such a visit, or a formal Moroccan Embassy in Israel, relations have developed rapidly over the three years since the Abraham Accords.

Achievements include:

Tourism is also booming, with an estimated record 200,000 Israelis expected to visit Morocco in the 12 months to December 2023.

Bilateral trade grew by a third in 2022, and in early 2022, Israel announced it had set an annual trade target of US$500 million after it signed a new trade and investment deal with Morocco, which covers aerospace, automobile, agri-food, textile and pharmaceutical industries.

Multiple senior Israeli government ministers, officials and defence figures have visited Morocco, including then-Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, then-IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Aviv Kochavi, Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, and Israeli Transportation Minister Miri Regev.

The head of Morocco’s senate, Enaam Mayara, was scheduled to visit Israel, including a landmark official visit to the Knesset in mid-September 2023. However, the trip was postponed at the last minute due to Mayara being hospitalised. It would have been the first time a Moroccan leader had visited Israel’s legislative body.

While Israel’s relationship with the UAE has probably been the most successful out of all its Abraham Accords partners – bilateral trade has soared every year and tourism is flourishing – Morocco is clearly a close second, and could be key to boosting the Accords further, especially in the areas of “common sovereignty, security and energy needs”.

Jacob Olidort, director of the Middle East Peace Project at the America First Policy Institute and a former adviser to then-US Vice President Mike Pence, said Israel, which is a leader in desert military operations, could work closer with Morocco to expand counter-terrorism efforts across the African continent. And Morocco, with help from Israel’s ground-breaking technology, could play a leading role in helping to stabilise ‘energy poverty’ in Sub-Saharan Africa, an area that is plagued by “radical Islamic terror cells,” political instability and limited economic output, but which has enormous potential, he suggested.

Moroccan journalist Jamal Amiar has labelled the Accords a “game changer”, adding that “a lot of things are rapidly changing.” He says that Morocco’s “partnership with Israel is based on common security interests and long-standing relations that have helped build trust.”

Morocco’s unique Jewish history and culture

Well before it officially established diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020, Morocco had distinguished itself amongst Arab states for its long and mostly respectful relationship with its Jewish community. The North African country has been home to Jews for some 2,000 years, long before it was colonised by Arabs and Islam was introduced in the seventh century. Today, unlike much of the Arab world where all traces of ancient Jewish communities have been almost completely erased, Morocco continues to embrace Jewish culture and history as part of its own story.

In the mid-20th century, Morocco’s Jewish population was an estimated 300,000. But after the State of Israel was re-born in 1948, violent antisemitism broke out across Arab countries; Jews faced mob violence, persecution, their property was confiscated and they were forced to flee from their homes. Some two-thirds of these Jews – approximately 900,000 from countries including Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and many more – found refuge in Israel.

Morocco was no exception, and it’s estimated that only 2,000-2,500 Jews remain in the country today (this is nonetheless the most in the Arab world outside the UAE, which has experienced a recent influx of new Jewish residents). However, approximately 700,000 Israelis are of Moroccan descent, with many maintaining close ties to their heritage.

Yet a Jewish presence remains visible and accepted in Morocco. In the coastal city of Casablanca, there are 20 in-use synagogues, seven kosher restaurants, five kosher butchers, and four Jewish schools. The Foundation of Moroccan Jewish Heritage has preserved dozens of historic synagogues across the country and, in 1997, created the first Jewish museum in the Arab world.

The local Jewish community, with support from the Moroccan monarchy, has preserved more than 167 Jewish cemeteries and shrines. In 2020, Morocco broke further ground and became the first Arab country to include Jewish history in its school curriculum.

In July 2022, under royal instruction, the Moroccan Government created several new bodies to formally acknowledge Judaism as “a component of the rich Moroccan culture,” including a National Council of the Moroccan Jewish Community, Foundation of Moroccan Judaism and Commission of Moroccan Jews Abroad.

A few months later, Mohammed VI Polytechnic University, in Marrakesh, opened the first campus synagogue in the Arab world. Rabbi Elie Abadie, senior rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, who attended the inauguration ceremony, said: “The significance of opening a synagogue at the University in Morocco, especially one that is named after His Majesty the King, is of great importance.”

A unique diplomatic history and challenging present

Although Morocco voted with all other Arab states against the 1947 UN Partition Plan that led to the re-creation of the State of Israel in 1948 – and took part in the mass expulsion of Jews in the late 1940s and 1950s – Rabat immediately engaged in private diplomacy with Jerusalem after Israel’s creation.

The two states actually shared 60 years of secret security, intelligence and diplomatic co-operation before they signed the Abraham Accords; Israel helped Morocco purchase advanced weaponry and astonishingly, Morocco’s then-King Hassan II even reportedly allowed Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency to bug meeting rooms in Morocco in the 1960s, where visiting Arab leaders met. This allowed Israeli intelligence to gather crucial information, including in the lead-up to the 1967 war. Israel arguably won the Six-Day War thanks in part to Moroccan help.

Of course, an ongoing challenge in the relationship remains the issue of the West Bank and Gaza and Morocco’s support for the Palestinian cause. The inauguration of the Netanyahu-led Israeli Government in late 2022, which includes members of far-right and ultra-nationalist parties, has at times strained relations. Increased violence in the West Bank, including anti-terror operations, has drawn sympathy from Moroccans and increased pushback against the Accords. King Mohammed VI also chairs the international Al-Quds committee, which is focused on preserving the “Arab-Muslim character” of Jerusalem.

An upside to Morocco’s position, being friendly to both Israel and the Palestinians, is that it marks the North African country as a potential mediator for future peace talks between the sides.

Former Israeli Minister for Regional Cooperation Issawi Frej has argued that Morocco could be an “acceptable and friendly country” to create a pathway for fresh talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

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