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Morocco and Israel, beyond mere diplomatic normalisation

A succession of visits by high-ranking Israeli officials to the Alawi kingdom is part of the new political dynamic between the two nations
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REUTERS/AMIR COHEN  -   Israel Police Chief Yaakov Shabtai

Morocco and Israel have accelerated their economic, defence and security cooperation in recent months at a pace that goes beyond "simple diplomatic normalisation" and could turn their relationship into a "strategic partnership" that will change the balance in the region.

After resuming relations in December 2020 in a three-way agreement with the US that included former President Donald Trump's recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara, visits to Morocco by Israeli ministers and senior officials are constant.

As a sign of this dynamic, the head of the Israeli police, Yaakov Shabtai, concludes this Friday a five-day visit to Morocco, which marks three consecutive weeks of trips by Israeli officials to Rabat, following those of the Chief of the Israeli General Staff and the Ministers of Justice and Regional Cooperation.

"We are very satisfied with the momentum of cooperation with Morocco since the establishment of peaceful relations less than two years ago," Lior Ben Dor, director for Egypt and the Maghreb at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told EFE.

The two sides, he adds, "are determined to develop economic relations in the sectors of technology, agriculture, industry and tourism".

Beyond simple normalisation

For Riccardo Fabiani, director of the International Crisis Group for North Africa, although it is too early to speak of a strategic partnership between Morocco and Israel, the two countries "have gone beyond a simple diplomatic normalisation".

Morocco, he argues, is interested in developing its political, economic and military relations with Israel and in accelerating the transfer of technology, in order to strengthen its military superiority over the Polisario and to protect itself from a possible offensive by Algeria, the neighbouring country with which it has been in crisis for decades.

In the economic sphere, during a visit to Rabat last February by the Israeli Minister of Economy and Industry, Orna Barbivay, the two countries signed an agreement to increase the annual value of trade exchanges over the next five years from 131 million to 500 million dollars, focusing on areas such as agri-food, automobiles and textiles.

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REUTERS/TOM BRENNE - From left, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed display their copies of the signed agreements as U.S. President Donald Trump looks on as they participate in the Abraham Accords signing ceremony in Washington.

In March, the Moroccan Ministry of Industry and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) signed a memorandum of understanding for the development of the aeronautical and civil aerospace industry in Morocco.

For Israel, investing in Morocco means, according to the analyst, breaking its diplomatic isolation and betting in the long term on a possible strategic partnership in North Africa and even on cheap labour for its industry.

Proof of this is the agreement signed at the end of June to hire Moroccan workers in the nursing and construction sectors in Israel.

Rapid and unexpected military cooperation

Military cooperation between Rabat and Tel Aviv has been, in Fabiani's view, "rapid and unexpected", and Morocco has already purchased several million dollars worth of advanced weapons and technology produced in Israel.

According to the analyst, Morocco has already begun to use these weapons, especially drones, in the latest skirmishes with the Polisario in the far east of Western Sahara, which erupted after the independence front declared in November 2020 that the ceasefire agreement that had been in place for more than three decades had been broken.

The North African country, he adds, has also opened its bases to Israeli aircraft and the two countries have started talking about joint military industrial projects.

In November last year, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz signed a memorandum of understanding with his Moroccan counterpart in Rabat on military cooperation.

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PHOTO/AFP - Moroccan Justice Minister Abdellatif Wehbe (right) and Israeli Justice Minister Gideon Saar (left) shake hands after signing an agreement in Rabat

This unprecedented agreement includes partnerships in intelligence, industry, military training, and would facilitate Israeli arms sales to the African country.

Gantz's visit was the only visit to Morocco by an Israeli leader to be met with minor social unrest in a traditionally pro-Palestinian country, but the discontent was limited to a protest by a few dozen people in Rabat.

"Israel's security contribution is potentially immense and, in the long term, could change military balances in the region, especially with regard to electronic warfare," Fabiani writes.

In a move that could further accelerate ties between the two states, Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said in Rabat on 21 June that her country supports Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory of the Sahara.

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PHOTO/MAROC DIPLOMATIE/TWITTER - Ayelet Shaked, Israel's Minister of Interior, with Nasser Bourita, Morocco's Minister of Foreign Affairs

The numerous trips by Israeli officials to Morocco in recent months have not met with a counterpart from Morocco, which keeps a low profile on these visits, which are mainly reported by the Israeli government.

This dynamic could be broken if the Israeli Foreign Ministry announced on 28 July that the head of Moroccan diplomacy, Nasser Bourita, will visit Israel in September.

He would do so in order to take part in the second anniversary of the Abraham Accords, sponsored by Trump and in which Israel's new policy of rapprochement with Arab countries, including Morocco, is framed.