TAU Notes No. 86
September 7, 2003
A New Stage in Israeli-Moroccan Relations?
Daniel Zisenwine Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies
Israeli Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom's visit to Morocco last week marked a
new development in Israeli-Moroccan relations. Shalom, who met with his
Moroccan counterpart, Muhammad Ben Assa, and with King Muhammad VI, was the
first senior Israeli to visit Morocco since diplomatic relations with Israel
were severed in October 2000. Israeli officials view the visit as an
important diplomatic achievement in the current context of Arab-Israeli
relations and have expressed the hope that it will lead to renewed
diplomatic relations between the two countries.
On the Moroccan side, the visit signaled the possibility of reviving Morocco
's role in Arab-Israeli negotiations but also highlighted bilateral
relations. Although Israeli-Moroccan ties stand out in the general context
of Arab-Israeli relations, they are not without their own constraints and
limitations, which are often overlooked. As the two countries prepare to
embark on a new diplomatic course, a closer look at this unique relationship
seems very much in order.
Morocco and Israel have always enjoyed a "special" relationship that often
outpaced Israel's ties with other Arab actors. Geographically distant from
the Arab-Israeli conflict, Morocco had fewer qualms about pursuing ties with
Israel. This relationship began with the late King Hassan II's overtures
towards the Jewish State, starting in the 1960s. It encompassed
security-related cooperation measures and later involved Moroccan mediation
efforts between Israel and other Arab parties at critical junctures, such as
before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Israel in November 1977.
Hassan also acted to protect and support the remnants of Morocco's ancient
Jewish community. Hassan's initiatives placed him in the vanguard of
Arab-Israeli diplomacy. He publicly hosted Israeli Prime Minister Shimon
Peres in Morocco in 1986 and authorized visits of Israelis to Morocco.
These measures bolstered his reputation as a moderate, pro-western leader,
and were welcomed in Washington and other western capitals. Hassan was
nevertheless careful not to deviate from the general Arab consensus in his
contacts with Israel. He did not establish open ties with Israel so long as
several outstanding Arab-Israeli issues, primarily the Palestinian problem,
remained unsettled. Over the years, he expressed unrelenting support for
the Palestinian cause and called for a just solution to their plight.
For its part, Israel welcomed Morocco's early diplomatic overtures. The
possibility of pursuing ties with a large Arab state was particularly
appealing to Israeli leaders. On the domestic level, there was much to gain
from any contact with Moroccan officials. Many Israelis of Moroccan origin
maintained visceral links to their native country, and hundreds of thousands
of them supported pursuing ties between Israel and Morocco. These
sentiments helped sustain Israeli interest in advancing contacts with
The Oslo Accords and the general thaw in Arab-Israeli relations afforded
Morocco the opportunity to establish low-level diplomatic relations with
Israel in 1994. The two countries maintained diplomatic liaison bureaus in
Tel Aviv and Rabat, which oversaw cooperation in various areas. A
significant number of Israelis began visiting Morocco and commercial ties
were promoted as well. Concurrently, Morocco retained its symbolic role in
Arab-Israeli peace talks.
In spite of these developments, Morocco's positions towards Israel remained
tenuous and reserved, largely affected by progress on other Arab-Israeli
tracks. In addition, Moroccan leaders faced domestic opposition to
normalizing ties with Israel. Hassan was largely indifferent to these
protests but was forced to acknowledge them indirectly in his decision
making. He declined to promote diplomatic relations with Israel and
insisted on low-profile normalization.
Hassan's death in 1999 ushered in a new era in Morocco. King Muhammad VI's
accession to the throne was accompanied by expectations that the young
monarch would tackle Morocco's chronic social and economic problems. These
include high unemployment (over 20% in urban areas) and widespread poverty.
It was generally accepted that the new king would dedicate most of his
energies to domestic affairs. Although he proclaimed his devotion to
Morocco's traditional foreign policies and vowed to maintain them, he was
less attentive to foreign affairs. The deterioration in Arab-Israeli
relations following the outbreak of the Aqsa Intifada in October 2000
distanced Morocco even further from any diplomatic involvement. Morocco
followed other Arab countries and severed ties with Israel.
Four years after his accession, Muhammad continues to face serious social
and economic challenges. Much remains to be done in the area of political
reform, to which the King committed himself at the outset of his reign.
Under these circumstances, the King's ability to pursue serious diplomatic
measures is uncertain, particularly given the rise of Islamist movements.
The Islamist Parti de la Justice et du Developpement (PJD) now holds 13% of
the seats in parliament, and support for the largest Islamist group outside
the political system, al-Adl wal-Ihsane, remains high. These movements have
opposed relations with Israel and will not make it any easier for the king
to promote ties with Israel should he choose to do so.
The al-Qaeda terror bombings in Casablanca last May jolted Moroccan
officials and forced them to revisit Morocco's limited diplomatic agenda.
Morocco recognized the need to improve security measures and cooperation
with other countries in combating terror. It was reported that the head of
Israel's Mossad intelligence agency visited Morocco as part of the bombing
investigation. Concurrently, Morocco intensified contact with Israeli
officials. Foreign Minister Ben Assa secretly met his Israeli counterpart
in London in June, and subsequent contacts between the two ministers paved
the way for last week's visit.
However, Morocco has been cautious in its recent contacts with Israel and is
likely to proceed at a measured pace with any decision to restore diplomatic
relations. It is doubtful that Morocco will reopen its diplomatic mission
in Israel before Egypt and Jordan return their ambassadors to Israel.
Morocco reportedly consulted with Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen about
initiating a more intensive dialogue with Israel, but while Abu Mazen did
not reject the idea, it is unlikely, in the current Israeli-Palestinian
climate, that Morocco will speed up its diplomatic minuet with Israel. Even
in the aftermath of Shalom's visit, domestic and foreign sensitivities
continue to overshadow Morocco's relations with Israel, and it remains
unclear whether King Muhammad will move to develop those ties.
Published by TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY
The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies
& The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies
through the generosity of Sari and Israel Roizman, Philadelphia