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Sunday, 21 April 2024
Formalization of normalization?
Ian Black
Yair Lapid, Israel’s foreign minister, flew from Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv to Rabat last week to meet his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita. In two days of high-profile talks they signed cooperation agreements in the fields of culture, sports, aviation and tourism.  normalization

Less than a year after agreeing to “normalize” their relations, this was a significant step forward, capped by the inauguration of Israel’s liaison mission in Rabat. Lapid also announced that within two months the countries’ plan to open fully-fledged embassies, rather than liaison offices – “formalization of normalization.”

Looking ahead, they signed a memorandum of understanding on the establishment of a consultation mechanism between their foreign ministries, even though it was unclear how they would use it.

Israel and Morocco agreed last November to resume diplomatic relations and re-launch direct flights under a deal brokered by President Donald Trump. As a key part of this brazenly transactional agreement, the US became the first country to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, about which there has been a 40-year dispute with the Algerian-backed Polisario Front that seeks to establish an independent state in the territory. Over 80 countries have recognized the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic.

So far there is little sign that Joe Biden’s very different administration is going to backtrack on Trump’s “dirty deal,” as critics describe it. “There is no change in the US position,” Joey Hood, the acting assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, said on a recent visit to Rabat. “Where you may see a change is in the level of energy and emphasis we are putting on helping the UN process to really produce results.” Another clue was provided by a US statement "enthusiastically congratulating" Israel and Morocco over Lapid's visit, calling it "another important step in the strengthening of their relationship."

Lapid’s trip was the first by an Israeli minister since 2003, and the first meeting in Morocco since the US-brokered “Abraham Accords” with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, that were followed by Sudan and Morocco. Last month saw the opening of the UAE embassy in Tel Aviv and an Israeli one in Abu Dhabi. The overall picture is the downgrading of the traditional public commitment to the Palestinians by Arab governments.

The only negative aspect of Lapid’s visit was the refusal of the Moroccan Prime Minister, Saad Eddine el-Othmani, of the Islamic Justice and Development Party, to meet him –a decision that is hard to understand, since it was Othmani who, last December, signed the joint declaration that sealed normalization with Israel.

The past, as ever, is highly relevant: Israel and Morocco have had clandestine relations since the 1950’s and semi-formal ones in the 1990s, but Morocco cut them off after the second Palestinian intifada erupted in 2000. Still, the countries maintained informal ties, with thousands of Israelis travelling to Morocco each year, many of them of Maghrebi origin. Morocco is much more connected to Judaism and Jews than any other country in the Arab world.

But this latest development is not just about tourism or shared heritage but a significant geopolitical shift. Concluding his visit, Lapid claimed that strategically, they had created a political axis of Israel, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and the UAE, and to a certain extent Greece and Cyprus as well. “This poses a pragmatic alternative to religious extremism,” he added. “We are creating a cycle of life in the face of the cycle of death created by Iran and its emissaries. Something is happening in the Middle East. People and leaders look at Libya and Syria and Lebanon and say to themselves, ‘This is not what we want for our children. This is not what we want for ourselves.’"

Bourita made clear he was keen to harness Israeli expertise in agricultural technology, research and water management in a desert climate. Another more controversial area of cooperation is cyber security following an agreement last month shortly before French officials accused Morocco of targeting Emmanuel Macron’s mobile phone with the Pegasus software supplied by the Israeli company NSO.

If the two countries have indeed formally agreed to open fully-fledged embassies in Rabat and Tel Aviv then it would be a big step. Bilateral trade and other agreements between companies and institutions have so far been implemented at a snail’s pace, which Israeli officials believe is intentional on Morocco’s part. Visits to Israel by Moroccan cabinet ministers that were planned before May’s Gaza fighting were postponed or cancelled.

It remains unclear whether there remain reservations on the Moroccan side – possibly because of King Mohammed’s role as chairman of the Al-Quds Committee of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation? And there is domestic support – especially on social media - to the idea that by establishing relations with Israel he is betraying the Palestinian cause.

Rabat is right to insist that it supports a two-state solution to the Middle East’s most intractable conflict. In any event open and normal relations between the two countries at both ends of the Mediterranean Sea are not in themselves a negative development. But neither the Palestinians nor the Sahrawis are going to disappear any time soon. levant

 by: IAN BLACK levant