What happened: Morocco has become the fourth country to agree to normalise relations with Israel in the last four months.
- US President Donald Trump made the announcement on Twitter. In return for agreeing to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, Trump agreed to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. The US also reportedly agreed to give Morocco $3bn investments and is trying to push through an agreement to sell four advanced unmanned aerial vehicles to Morocco.
- Explaining the decision to make peace with Israel, King Mohammed VI cited “the historical role that Morocco has played in bringing the peoples of the region together and supporting security and stability in the Middle East and given the special ties that bind the Jewish community of Moroccan origin, including those in Israel.”
- Last night, during the ceremony to light the first Chanukah candle at the Western Wall, Netanyahu said: “The people of Morocco and the Jewish people have had a warm relationship in the modern period. Everybody knows the tremendous friendship shown by the kings of Morocco and the people of Morocco to the Jewish community there. And hundreds of thousands of these Moroccan Jews came to Israel, and they form a human bridge between our two countries and our two peoples, of sympathy respect, of fondness and love. I think that this is the foundation on which we can now build this peace.”
- Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, who was updated on the normalisation deal several weeks ago by US officials, said: “I applaud the anticipated establishment of official ties with Morocco, which presents an opportunity to anchor the long-standing relationship between our peoples, and formalise a rich and deep shared history that goes back centuries. This is a significant step, which will further the defence and economic interests of both countries. I thank the American government for its unwavering efforts to keep Israel strong and our region stable”.
- Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad both branded the agreement as a “betrayal”. Hamas said in its statement: “Hamas condemns the Moroccan-Zionist declaration of normalization of relations between them, in an odious move that is not befitting of Morocco and does not express the brotherly Moroccan people who have stood and are still with Palestine, Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa in all circumstances and stations.” The Palestinian Authority (PA) has yet to release any statement, but the King of Morocco called PA President Mahmoud Abbas to inform him of the decision to restore ties with Israel.
- Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said that “the renewal of our relations with Israel is not in exchange for the United States’ recognition of our sovereignty over Western Sahara and will not come at the expense of the Palestinians.”
- Bahrain and the UAE have also welcomed the announcement.
Context: Unlike the Gulf states and Sudan, Morocco’s ties with Israel go back to the in the 1950s and became formal following Israel’s interim peace accords with the Palestinians in the 1990s. Moroccan Jews have served as ministers and close advisers in the royal court and it was through covert contacts with Morocco in 1970s that led to Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt.
- However, in 2000, after the outbreak of the Second Intifada, Morocco ended all diplomatic ties with Israel and closed its mission in Tel Aviv. Since then, Israel-Morocco ties have gradually increased, albeit under the radar, especially in the field of intelligence gathering.
- Progress on the normalisation deal occurred two weeks ago when US envoy Avi Berkowitz visited Israel and met with National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat. Senior Israeli and American officials say that Morocco was the main topic of conversation. Ben-Shabbat reportedly encouraged Berkowitz to advance the issue before Trump leaves the White House.
- The Trump administration’s recognition of Western Sahara as Moroccan sovereignty is a very controversial one. Morocco has claimed the area since the Spanish withdrew in 1975, and in 1979 it annexed about 75 per cent of the area, although no country up to now had recognised the decision.
- The UN deploys a peacekeeping mission to the area to monitor a 1991 ceasefire, which was broken by Moroccan military forces on 13 November 2020, and to organise a referendum on the territory’s status. The vote was set for 1992 but was aborted when Morocco objected to the proposed electoral register, saying it was biased.
- Morocco and Israel share concerns about malign Iranian activity near their borders. Iran is believed to have helped the separatist Polisario Front organisation, which controls around 25 per cent of Western Sahara and demands independence, by smuggling weapons and assisting in military training provided by Hezbollah advisers.
- In April 2018, the Moroccan Foreign Minister presented intelligence information incriminating Iran and Hezbollah in support of the Polisario Front. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah later blamed Israel for providing the intelligence to Morocco.
- There is a large Jewish community and heritage in Morocco and an estimated 50,000 Israelis travel to the African state each year, many of which go to learn about their family history. Of all the Arab countries prior to 1948, Morocco had the most Jews (260,000), who were expelled or fled in the years following Israel’s independence.
Looking ahead: US President Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the King of Morocco will hold a three-way conversation to discuss the depth and speed of the normalisation process. Trump is also aiming to hold a ceremony at the White House before he departs on 20 January 2021.
- Morocco and Israel will take three steps soon: begin direct flights between the two countries, open liaison offices in Tel Aviv and Rabat, and sign cooperation agreements in the economic and technology sectors. Both sides will then negotiate a peace treaty.
- There are reports in Israel that another country is expected to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel in the coming days.