Morocco and Israel cement gains from the Abraham Accords

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6 min read
17 August, 2021
Analysis: Both governments seek to expand and deepen bilateral cooperation, despite many segments of Morocco's population continuing to stand in opposition to normalisation.

On 11 August, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid arrived in Rabat as the highest-ranking Israeli official to come to Morocco since it became the fourth Arab state to join the Abraham Accords last year.

The Israeli diplomat’s high-profile two-day visit served to cement relations between Rabat and Tel Aviv and inaugurate Israel’s diplomatic mission in the North African country.

While in Casablanca, Lapid told a news conference that within several months the Israelis will open an embassy in Morocco and also a Moroccan embassy will open in Jerusalem.

Israel’s top diplomat also presented his Moroccan counterpart with an invitation from the Israeli president to the King of Morocco to visit Israel.

"Yair Lapid's Rabat trip is to show that Morocco-Israel relations are firmly on the right track. There is no cloud on the horizon"

On 16 May, during the latest Gaza-Israel war, there were protests in 46 Moroccan cities with demonstrators showing their support for the Palestinian cause.

None of that, however, has slowed down the strengthening of ties between Rabat and Tel Aviv over the course of the past three months.

Bilateral relations seem unscathed by the events in Gaza and East Jerusalem which unfolded in May and stirred up much anger across the wider Arab region.

“When intensive bombing by Israel unfolded on Gaza in May, many commentators declared that Arab countries that had opened relations with Israel in 2020 were ‘embarrassed’ or had misgivings,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at Global Initiative, in an interview with The New Arab.

“This is absolutely not true. And Yair Lapid’s Rabat trip is to show that Morocco-Israel relations are firmly on the right track. There is no cloud on the horizon.”

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Israeli alternate prime minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid gives a news conference in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, on 12 August 2021. [Getty]

Indeed, it is tough to imagine Rabat reversing course now. “[Morocco’s] decision [to enter the Abraham Accords], which arguably had been decades in the making, was finally made overtly last year and it is not really up for debate now,” explained Harchaoui.

In a range of domains from cybersecurity to tourism and sports to culture, these two governments seek to expand and deepen bilateral cooperation despite many segments of Morocco’s population continuing to stand in opposition to normalisation.

During Lapid’s visit to Rabat, he and his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita signed three accords. One is an air service agreement. The second pertains to cooperation in the areas of culture, sports, and youth. The third establishes a “political consultation mechanism” between Morocco and Israel’s foreign ministries.

“The convergence between Israel and Morocco was ongoing well before the normalisation of ties and this has wider geopolitical implications,” Dr Umberto Profazio, an Associate Fellow at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst at the NATO Defence College Foundation, told The New Arab.

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“The recent revelations of the Pegasus project suggest that Rabat and Tel Aviv were already cooperating on cybersecurity, even before the cooperation agreement signed in Rabat last month on this issue,” said Dr. Profazio.

“In this context, both the agreement and Lapid's visit indicate an acceleration that is clearly aimed at preserving the gains reached with the Abraham Accords. They are intended to consolidate the normalisation front in which Morocco has been drawn into, a regional bloc of counter-revolutionary powers and monarchies that have normalised ties with Israel and oppose revolutionary and, to a certain extent, revisionist powers active in the region, which are challenging the status quo and are more Islamist-leaning.”  

Ultimately, many individuals and groups in Morocco care deeply about the Palestinian cause. But the transactional factor behind Rabat’s decision to enter the Abraham Accords has minimised public rage against the government for signing a diplomatic deal with the Jewish State.

In exchange for Morocco opening formalised ties with Israel, the US agreed to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, which left most Moroccans (including most Islamists) believing that normalisation was a tough pill to swallow, but one worth swallowing, nonetheless.

"Some experts warn that the transactional context in which Morocco formalised relations with Israel has created dangerous conditions for Western Sahara and the wider region"

For the government in Rabat and the Moroccan public, Western Sahara is their country’s most important foreign policy file. There is a Moroccan doctrine which states that Rabat possessing total control of Western Sahara is required for preventing Morocco from collapsing. Put simply, Moroccans view the Western Sahara issue as existential.

Regional factors in the Maghreb

Some experts warn that this transactional context in which Morocco formalised relations with Israel has created dangerous conditions for Western Sahara and the wider region.

With the US and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states increasing their support for Morocco’s position in the decades-old conflict, temperatures in the “last colony of Africa” could potentially rise significantly.

“Despite the celebrative coverage of this important moment in [Moroccan-Israeli] relations, the regional implications of this alignment must not be underestimated,” explained Dr Profazio.

“The normalisation has been obtained in exchange for the recognition of Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara either explicitly by [the US under both Trump and Biden]; or implicitly by some Gulf states such as Bahrain and the UAE, which in November 2020 have opened consulates in Western Sahara. This trade-off has already contributed to escalating tensions in Western Sahara, laying the groundwork for reigniting the conflict frozen since 1991.”

As Moroccan-Israeli relations further cement, Algeria will feel increasingly threatened. With the UAE putting pressure on countries in the Maghreb and Sahel to join the Abraham Accords, officials in Algiers are deeply concerned about Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy agenda in this part of Africa.

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Moroccans protest the Gaza war on 16 May 2021 and urge the government to abandon the normalisation agreement with Israel. [Getty]

Algeria has special and historic relations with a number of these countries in the region and does not want Abu Dhabi creating wedges between Algiers and these other states, such as Tunisia.

There is no denying that growing Emirati influence in countries bordering Algeria such as Libya, Mali, Morocco, and Tunisia unsettles officialdom in Algiers.

There is a “real threat on our borders, reached by the Zionist entity” was how Algeria’s prime minister Abdelaziz Djerad reacted to Morocco and Israel’s formalisation of relations in December 2020.

While in Morocco this month, Lapid expressed Israeli concerns about Algeria’s regional role, accusing Algiers of growing too close to Iran and condemning Algeria for taking a strong position against Israel joining the African Union as an observer.

By calling out Algeria from Morocco, Lapid’s words will probably only contribute to Algiers’ perceptions of the budding Moroccan-Israeli partnership as a threat.

In response to what Lapid said about Algeria’s role in North Africa, the Foreign Ministry in Algiers accused Rabat’s chief diplomat of seeking to bring Morocco’s “new Middle Eastern ally into a dangerous adventure directed against Algeria” - a clear reference to Israel.

"The convergence between Israel and Morocco was ongoing well before the normalisation of ties and this has wider geopolitical implications"

“Algeria has always been weary of the power of petrodollars following the collapse of Arab solidarity with Palestine in the late 1970s with the Camp David accords,” Jacob Mundy, an associate professor of peace and conflict studies and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Colgate University, told The New Arab.

Without any doubt, Lapid’s visit to Morocco and the growth of Rabat and Tel Aviv’s relationship will probably only make Algeria firmer in its positions on regional issues.

Algiers is only doubling down on its vocal opposition to the Abraham Accords and hoping to convince more states in the wider Arab/African/Islamic world to avoid normalising relations with Israel until the Palestinian issue is justly resolved.

But Algeria might fail in this regard with Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and (according to one former US ambassador) perhaps Tunisia being next to join the Abraham Accords.

Under such circumstances, Algeria would face the possibility of being surrounded by UAE-influenced states that have formalised diplomatic relations with Israel, which would leave Algiers feeling more vulnerable to foreign plots aimed at destabilising Algeria.  

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero