Morocco’s hosting of an Israeli delegation in mid-August, led by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, was the first high-level bilateral meeting between the two countries since 2003. The visit was part of Yair Lapid’s regional tour to endorse the diplomatic successes of the Abraham Accords. Morocco is one of four Arab countries that have normalized their relations with Israel under the agreements, along with Sudan, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, where Yair Lapid inaugurated a new Israeli Embassy before heading to Morocco.

Although the delegation was received with all the honors, it is interesting to note a breach in the usual protocol: Minister Yair Lapid was initially welcomed and accompanied, not by his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita, but by the Minister Delegate for Foreign Affairs, Mohcine Jazouli. It was only later that the delegation met with the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs. This was a symbolic gesture that shows the Kingdom remains cautious in its dealings with Israeli representatives.

During the visit, the Israeli delegation initiated Tel Aviv’s diplomatic mission in Rabat, and then visited the historic Beth-El temple in Casablanca. Finally, Yair Lapid met with the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bourita, with whom he signed three cooperation agreements. These accords concern the fields of aviation, culture, and a memorandum of understanding on establishing a political consultation mechanism between their countries’ foreign ministries.

The Narrative of a “Common History”

“Our ties with Israel are unlike any other ties,” said Minister Bourita to reporters while standing alongside his Israeli counterpart after the meetings. Lapid later commented that for him, “This [was] a homecoming,” adding that he hoped in the future Israelis would not travel to Morocco as tourists, but “as family, to explore their heritage and their memories.”

Indeed, the Moroccan authorities have endeavored to present the normalization as a reconciliation between two natural allies, due to the Jewishness of the Cherifian Kingdom and the “Moroccanness” of so many Israelis. They emphasized the fact that Morocco is home to the largest Jewish minority in the Arab world, and that there are over 800,000 Jews of Moroccan origin in Israel. With such a discourse, the Palace tries to clear itself of accusations of collaborating with the Zionists, and to keep up its image as being a moderate and tolerant nation.

The Moroccan authorities have endeavored to present the normalization as a reconciliation between two natural allies.

However, such a feel-good narrative cannot disguise the overarching, strategic reasons behind this rapprochement.  While the normalization was enacted in December 2020, bilateral relations between the two had never fully ceased in the past. In fact, in 2014, hundreds of diplomatic letters – leaked by a Moroccan activist – revealed that the two countries had been maintaining an ongoing political dialogue. Similarly, Israeli records reported US$37 million in trade with Morocco in 2017, as well as the signing of several trade and economic agreements.

Therefore, the diplomatic normalization was simply an opportunity for the Kingdom to recognize and strengthen a cooperation that has always existed and meets essential needs—primarily in the areas of health, technology, tourism, defense, and cybersecurity.

A Decision Motivated by Strategic Interests

While Palestinians in the occupied territories struggle to access COVID-19 vaccinations, Morocco has benefited from the “generosity” of its Israeli ally, which intervened with the Pfizer company so that the Kingdom could receive a shipment of two million doses.

In terms of tourism, the opening of Morocco to Israeli tourists could greatly benefit the country economically. Even before the normalization, between 50,000 and 70,000 Israeli tourists of Moroccan origin used to visit the Kingdom every year, even as they had to transit through other countries. This figure is now predicted to reach 200,000 tourists per year, as direct flights between Tel Aviv and Marrakech – the tourist capital – were launched in July.

The Israeli security and military support is most coveted by Moroccan officials.

Still, though the economic advantages of normalizing ties with Israel are significant, the Israeli security and military support is most coveted by Moroccan officials. Reports in July by international media of Morocco’s use of Pegasus spyware – supplied by the Israeli company NSO – underlined the Kingdom’s extensive use of Israeli technology for domestic and foreign purposes. Allegedly, more than 6,000 Algerian telephone numbers have been spied on by Morocco through Pegasus, as well as many domestic political opponents. In fact, Moroccan and Israeli officials apparently signed a cooperation agreement on cyber defense last July.

Finally, under the Trump administration, normalization with Israel was a condition for Morocco’s access to a series of financial and security agreements, as well as US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Though the Biden administration is currently reviewing such decisions, along with the pledge of US$3 billion in aid to private sector projects in Morocco and a US$1 billion in arms sale.

[Morocco Resumes Israel Ties for US Recognition of Western Sahara Rule]

[‘More than a Spy in Your Pocket:’ Morocco Among Nations Abusing Pegasus Spyware]

[Algeria and Morocco’s Discord is Tied to Decades-Old Grievances]

A Balancing Act: Appeasing Internal Opposition

Despite the budding Moroccan-Israeli relations, the August meeting was dented by an overstatement from Minister Yair Lapid. At a press conference in Casablanca, he declared: “With Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, we have decided to open embassies in Jerusalem and Morocco in a few months.” These words were immediately refuted by the Moroccan Foreign Ministry, who called them “unilateral.” However, according to a diplomatic source, such an embassy may indeed be opened, but it will be in Tel Aviv and not Jerusalem.

This slight discord shows how ambiguous the Moroccan position remains regarding Israel, as it seeks to maintain a semblance of balance to uphold its image as a pro-Palestinian actor—not only internationally, but also with the internal opposition.

Morocco Israel

Protesters face off with security forces during a protest against Israel’s bombing of Gaza in Rabat, Morocco, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

Indeed, while the Moroccan media have mostly applauded the Palace’s diplomatic maneuvers, this has not been the case for a large part of the Moroccan people, who have not hesitated to make their voices heard in the streets. In May 2021, thousands of Moroccans protested in 46 cities to denounce Israel’s bombing of Gaza. Although demonstrations in front of the Parliament in Rabat were suppressed by security forces in April, as the authorities opted to ban most rallies in solidarity with the Palestinians.

According to an opinion poll conducted by The Arab Barometer, 59 percent of Moroccans say they are hostile to normalization between Morocco and Israel, which shows a marked discrepancy between official institutions and Moroccan public opinion.

Political Divisions

This chasm was further exposed by the rise of several political parties that have accused the Moroccan state of betraying the Palestinian cause and collaborating with the Zionist settlers. For example, the “Justice and Development” party (PJD), which is currently at the head of the government, called for the closure of the Israeli liaison office during the bombing of Gaza in May.

Prime Minister Saad el Othmani, a PJD party member, went so far as to receive Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Palestinian faction Hamas. This visit was accompanied by the sending of humanitarian aid to the besieged Gaza Strip. These actions can be attributed to the Monarchy’s desire to emphasize its support of the Palestinian cause, on the one hand, and the Prime Minister’s need to restore his image after the humiliation of signing the normalization agreements, on the other. Indeed, Othmani was forced to ratify a decision he was opposed to, as the king has control over the country’s foreign policy. Thus, the PJD could have been trying to use the Palestinian cause as an electoral tool in the legislative elections on September 8.

Outside the PJD, several parties have also shown their opposition to the rapprochement with Israel, such as Nabila Mounib’s Unified Socialist party, or the Socialist Democratic Vanguard party. They called it an “illegitimate agreement” and joined the demonstrations in March and April.

Moroccan-Israeli Normalization Furthers Tensions with Algeria

At the regional level, Rabat’s political balancing act has not convinced Algeria – Morocco’s neighborly rival – which has described the Moroccan-Israeli normalization as a “sterile choice” and a “humiliation deal.” Former Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad, who resigned in June, mentioned “foreign operations aimed at destabilizing Algeria,” as well as “the arrival of the Zionist entity at our doorstep” in one of his recent public speeches.

The strengthening of Morocco-Israel relations is one of the main reasons for the heightened diplomatic crisis between Morocco and Algeria.

It is certain that the strengthening of Morocco-Israel relations is one of the main reasons for the heightened diplomatic crisis between Morocco and Algeria, a country whose foreign policy is characterized by total opposition to Zionism. In August, Algeria announced the rupture of relations with Morocco, as well as the suspension of a gas supply agreement. Algerian diplomacy even claimed that Moroccan and Israeli elements had caused the fires that ravaged Kabylia this summer.

While Morocco and Algeria have been in conflict for several decades over the Western Sahara issue, the announcement of security and military cooperation between Morocco and Israel seemed like a slap in the face to Algerian diplomats, which now feel besieged. Indeed, the Kingdom plans to strengthen its military capabilities through its Israeli ally, a desire that was made concrete by the conduct of joint exercises with Israeli troops a few months ago. Such moves are likely to provoke an upheaval in the balance of power between Morocco and Algeria and stir up further hostility between the two countries.