The December 2020 Moroccan-Israeli normalization deal has evolved from a vehicle enabling Morocco to gain long-sought U.S. recognition of its claims on Western Sahara to a broader strategic partnership with Israel. Geopolitically, the relationship provides clear benefits to both sides: for Morocco overt access to Israeli security and military cooperation, and for Israel greater acceptance, presence, and potential influence in North Africa. But the bond has already enflamed regional tensions as Algeria grows weary of the scope of Morocco’s military cooperation and its hardware purchases. The two North African neighbors need to find means of reaching accommodation, and the international community can play a key role in helping to build such opportunities.
- The December 2020 Moroccan-Israeli normalization deal has evolved from a vehicle enabling Morocco to gain long-sought U.S. recognition of its claims on Western Sahara to a broader strategic partnership with Israel.
- Geopolitically, the relationship provides clear benefits to both sides: for Morocco overt access to Israeli security and military cooperation, and for Israel greater acceptance, presence, and potential influence in North Africa. But the bond has already enflamed regional tensions as Algeria grows weary of the scope of Morocco’s military cooperation and its hardware purchases.
- Morocco and Israel have built their nascent alliance on shared history and population flows, and Morocco has relied on this history to promote normalization domestically.
- The monarchy has walked a fine line, endorsing the alliance with Israel while vowing support for Palestinian rights and a two-state solution. The shift of Israeli politics to the right could complicate this, but it is not likely to derail the alliance.
- Popular perceptions in Morocco of the normalization deal and bilateral ties are nuanced and provide a stronger reflection of more principled considerations among the public. It contrasts with the lack of domestic political effort to oppose the alliance and speaks to a complicated and evolving popular sentiment.
- Israel provides an important benefit to the Moroccan military, which is eager to enhance its capabilities through access to Israeli technology, especially UAVs. Morocco increasingly views military cooperation with Israel as a potential deterrent to aggression from the Polisario Front (and, to a lesser extent, from Algeria). However, this posture and its recent arms purchase spree are compounding diplomatic tensions with Algiers.
- An important goal for international partners and supporters with a direct or indirect stake in regional stability is to build opportunities and platforms through which Morocco and Algeria can engage. The two countries need to find means of reaching accommodation. Competition is inevitable, but it can take place in a healthy way. The international community can play a key role here in helping to build these opportunities around shared interests.
Since the Morocco-Israel normalization deal brokered by the Trump administration in December 2020, the two countries have signed a slew of over 30 agreements, accords, and memoranda of understanding spanning sectors ranging from security and intelligence to agriculture and water management.1Several high-level visits and working delegations have shuttled between the two countries. Among the higher-profile aspects of the new bilateral relationship are the military and commercial elements, with military cooperation being undoubtedly the fastest moving. On Sept. 13, 2022 Gen. Belkhir el-Farouk, the inspector general of Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces (Forces Armées Royales, FAR), led a military delegation to meet with his counterpart Aviv Kochavi, who in turn had completed an earlier visit in July. Just about a year ago, in November 2021, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and his Moroccan counterpart, Abdellatif Loudiyi, signed a memorandum of understanding kicking off cooperation on a host of security issues, including arms purchases (especially of high-tech military equipment), joint military exercises, cyber security, and intelligence sharing.
Likewise, on the commercial and economic front, the collaboration has been extensive and is envisioned to bring foreign direct investment to Morocco and open up opportunities for mutual benefit. Cooperation has begun in earnest around issues such as water management and renewable energy as Israeli private businesses seek new investment opportunities in Morocco. In private, Israeli diplomats show happy astonishment at the embrace of their Moroccan counterparts. The normalization deal quickly turned into a “warm peace” and a mutual affection of sorts that sets this bilateral relationship apart from others.
Moroccan diplomats demure when their country is lumped into the Abraham Accords and are quick to note that their relationship with Israel predates that normalization.2 Historically, Morocco maintained ties to Israel through the large Moroccan diaspora that settled in Israel since the establishment of the Israeli state. Indeed, the two countries have had a long, if quiet, cooperative relationship on security, one that has notably inspired condemnation and controversy in parts of the Arab world. Furthermore, Rabat hosted an Israeli liaison office from 1994 until the intifada of 2000. But the normalization of 2020 ushered in a new level of engagement. Over the past year and a half, Moroccan-Israeli ties have expanded, encompassing strong military and security cooperation and promising commercial opportunities.
What the warmth of the partnership hints at is the speed with which these links have blossomed and the lack of hesitation on Morocco’s part in scaling up the partnership, which has created both opportunities and challenges. Israel has gladly followed Morocco’s lead in setting the pace, and both countries have come to see this as a strategically beneficial partnership. For Morocco, the deal has shifted from a vehicle enabling it to gain long-sought recognition from the United States of its claims on Western Sahara to a broader strategic partnership with Israel. Morocco also sees this relationship as helpful in boosting its ties with both the U.S. and the European Union, thus further diversifying the country’s foreign partnerships and playing an increasingly crucial role in national defense. More importantly, the partnership has the potential to shift the military balance with Algeria, especially at a moment when diplomatic tensions between the old frenemies have been at their worst in years.
The partnership provides clear benefits to both sides. It provides Morocco overt access to Israeli security and military cooperation, and a seat and a stake in regional discussions of shifting security dynamics. Morocco’s presence along with key security actors during the Negev Summit showcases the extent to which this partnership highlights new ambitions for Morocco’s foreign policy. As for Israel, greater direct peace with Morocco (as with other Arab governments) boosts its acceptance among Arab states and potentially within Arab publics. Furthermore, this relationship provides a particular presence and potential influence in North Africa, an arena that for Israel has been distant. But the bond, as it creates practical opportunities, leaves behind the crucial issue it was meant to further: the Palestinian question. This has already enflamed regional tensions in the Maghreb region, as Algeria grows weary of the scope of Moroccan-Israeli cooperation.
A Historical Foundation for a New Partnership
While normalization didn’t come until 2020, Morocco perhaps unwittingly paved the ground for it years prior. The Moroccan and Israeli governments have rooted their vigorous pursuit of normalization in shared history and population flows. Part of Morocco’s rationale for normalizing ties with Israel is based on its Judaic history. The country has been shoring up its relationship with Jews of Moroccan descent — there are an estimated 1 million Jews who are Moroccan or of Moroccan descent — by re-invigorating historical narratives that weakened or were lost over the decades. Rehabilitating this part of Morocco’s history has been an element of a broader national effort predating normalization to rebuild a culturally and religiously tolerant society under an inclusive monarchy that commands all the faithful, including Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
Looking back two decades, in its quest to ease the growing radicalization that led to the May 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca — the worst terrorist attacks in the country’s history — the monarchy adopted a holistic religious revision coupled with a hard security approach. The plan on the social and religious front was meant to remind Moroccans that Salafism, takfirism, and radical ideology are not indigenous to the North African country’s practice of Islam. Part of this effort was an attempt to refamiliarize Moroccans with a religious past that, however conservative it might have been, did not violently reject others. In that sense, the monarchy sought to bring back a more Sufi take on Islam and to emphasize the history of religious acceptance.
Efforts to showcase the co-existence of Muslims and Jews turned into a celebration of the country’s Jewish history as an example of said tolerance. Drawing on the contributions and importance of its Jewish population in various domains has provided somewhat of a natural first step for normalization from the leadership’s perspective. Historically, Morocco’s Jewish population was a minority, accounting for less than 10% of the total population at its peak. There was a major exodus after World War II and into the post-independence period, as Jewish communities from all over the Middle East and North Africa flocked to Israel. Morocco was one of the main departure points, with an estimated 130,000 Jews leaving the country from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Various factors played a role in this exodus, beyond the establishment of Israel as a Jewish homeland, including incidents of anti-Jewish violence and broader concerns within the Jewish community about their future in the country after independence. In 1948, pogroms in Oujda and Jerada catalyzed Jewish exodus from Morocco.
Today, according to the 2021 U.S. State Department Report on International Freedom, there are between 2,000 and 3,500 Jewish Moroccans, who report exercising their religion unhindered. Religious minorities in Morocco include members of various diaspora groups residing in the country, as well as those who have adopted Shiism or converted to Christianity. These minority groups, unlike Moroccan Jews, face official harassment and curtailment of freedoms. Initiatives to emphasize the country’s Jewish heritage have grown as the leadership sought to invigorate ties with the Jewish population of Moroccan descent. Among the various elements of this effort are renovations of Jewish cultural and religious sites, including synagogues, cemeteries, and Jewish quarters, which in Moroccan cities are referred to as Mellahs. This effort, which has gone on for about a decade, has recently picked up steam. In December 2021, King Mohammed VI announced an initiative to restore and renovate hundreds more cemeteries and synagogues. Other efforts to streamline and institutionalize Jewish heritage and links to the Moroccan Jewish diaspora include the creation of three bodies to manage diaspora affairs and streamline ties and exchanges: the Federation of Moroccan Judaism, the National Council of the Moroccan Jewish Community, and the Commission of Moroccan Jews Abroad.
The promotion of a broader popular understanding of the role of Judaism in contemporary and historical Morocco also includes featuring Jewish history in the public school curriculum. These initiatives, mainly bureaucratic and symbolic, have brought to the forefront the extent to which the Moroccan leadership wants to revalorize the role Jews and Judaism have played in the kingdom. Furthermore, there is an effort not to relegate this to one chapter or period, but rather to view it as an inherent part of Morocco’s history. As is often the case, this effort has not always led to a full and honest reckoning of the true scope of history, including its ugly side.3 Yet there is a rich history that is being explored to focus on a more tolerant reality to which the government and the people can strive, as well as to appeal to the Jewish diaspora — hundreds of thousands of Israelis, among whom are tourists, consumers, and potential investors.
The reception in Morocco of these efforts has ranged from ambivalence to passive support. Most Moroccans do not oppose a clearer understanding and revalorization of their country’s Judaic history, so long as it does not stand in competition or contrast to the dominant religious experience. Indeed, many Moroccans speak fondly of their experiences growing up in Jewish neighborhoods and or at times trace some of their own familial history to some Jewish remnant. While it can be difficult to separate reactions to normalizing the Jewish history of Morocco from normalization with Israel, as in retrospect one helped pave the way for the other, this aspect of Moroccan history and culture has not been the subject of much controversy or opposition.
The key issue the monarchy has had to sidestep, though, is that while embracing Morocco’s Jewish connections may not unsettle the values of most Moroccans, doing so at the expense of the Palestinian question is a thornier matter. The Moroccan monarchy has effectively put aside any concerns about the Palestinian question. Given its limited role, that has not been costly choice. Furthermore, for Morocco the Palestinian issue is neither one of national identity nor one of immediate geographical proximity. At the monarchy level, Morocco’s king has had a limited role chairing the Al-Quds Committee, one of the four standing committees of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation working to safeguarding Arab-Islamic heritage in Jerusalem. At the political level, leftist and Islamist parties in Morocco have often made the liberation of Palestine and support for Palestinian rights part of their discourse, if not platforms. On the popular level, there is solidarity with the cause, particularly among older generations. However, among younger Moroccans, who have less of an ideological commitment to their parents’ causes, many don’t see the Palestinian issue as their battle to win or lose.4
While Morocco continues to support a two-state solution, its recent embrace of Israel necessarily limits the Palestinians’ room for maneuver, making the issue less and less a question of Arab-Israeli peace. Through this bilateral partnership, and others, Israel is not only gaining peace but also stronger commercial and security ties across the Arab world, without resolving the Palestinian issue. The Moroccan monarchy has claimed that peace with Israel need not mean turning its back on the Palestinian cause. But such claims mean little, as Morocco has always kept its distance from the issue. Few examples exist of the Moroccan leadership endeavoring for Palestinian rights. In July 2022, Morocco was credited with helping achieve a deal with Israel to open the Allenby Bridge border crossing to Jordan to ease the systemic travel restrictions facing Palestinians. This is one of a few examples that would help justify the rationale that Arab actors are better positioned to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians if or when they accept Israel.
The impending government change in Israel could test the fine line the monarchy is walking regarding the alliance with Israel versus support for Palestinian rights. The results of the recent Israeli elections and the continuing shift of Israeli politics to the right will likely undermine one of the core tenants of the Abraham Accords, a halt to annexation. Yet, the rise of extreme-right figures within the Israeli government, including those known for racist rhetoric and calls for deportation laws and annexation like Itamar Ben-Gvir, is not likely to undo or halt this alliance. The scope of ambition for investment and military partnership has grown too important for Morocco to put aside. The area where this might play out is in shifting popular perceptions of normalization and Morocco’s alliance with Israel.
The Impact of Popular Perceptions
In a country like Morocco where the monarchy dominates decision making, the role of public opinion is rather limited, but the evolution of popular perceptions of normalization gives a sense of conflicting public sentiment, unlike the position of the government. In 2021, the Arab Barometer survey found, when polling Moroccan public opinion, greater acceptance of normalization with Israel than in other countries.
The Moroccan monarchy, which closely runs foreign affairs, has paved the way for this despite opposition from the Justice and Development Party, then the leading party in government. Billed as an extension of Morocco’s religious and cultural tolerance and a pathway to economic benefit, the bilateral deal met with limited popular resistance.
The key to this limited opposition at the time was, of course, the Western Sahara component. The deal was brokered by the Trump administration as a quid pro quo, although in the end the U.S. recognition of Western Sahara was subsequently watered down under the Biden administration. From both a popular and a political perspective, no matter how committed the Moroccan public might be to opposing Israel on the grounds of the Palestinian conflict, they are far more committed to Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. The U.S. recognition of what most view as Morocco’s rightful territory has long been a point of frustration among a public conscious of the strength and history of U.S.-Moroccan ties.
Due in large part to this bundle deal, efforts to mobilize against normalization were limited and mostly led by non-official political actors, like the banned Islamist group Al Adl Wal Ihsan, or Justice and Charity. Though long-time supporters of Palestinian rights, Al Adl Wal Ihsan’s base did not mobilize on the scale they typically do, in part because of the quick and early crackdown on efforts to organize protests, under the pretext of the COVID-19 pandemic. The issue was also simply not as relevant to a population facing significant domestic economic concerns, ones that a normalization deal could potentially help ease by facilitating incoming investment and economic growth.
More recent polling, however, shows a changing picture among the Moroccan public and less ambivalence, with the number of those who don’t know decreasing from the previous poll, and the percentage of those who oppose it overtaking those who favor the deal domestically.