Morocco: Israel normalisation jars with Hamas visit
Last week Morocco made two seemingly incongruous official gestures: offered its congratulations to the new Israeli government; and received a delegation from Hamas, headed by the chief of its political office, Ismail Haniyeh.
In light of the normalisation agreement signed with Israel last December, and the subsequent reopening of Israel’s Liaison Office in Rabat, the fact that King Mohammed VI of Morocco decided to congratulate the new Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, upon his government's success in securing approval from the Knesset, is not surprising from the official point of view.
Haniyeh’s reception at the head of a high-ranking delegation from Hamas, on the other hand, would have been considered unthinkable until very recently.
While it's true that the former head of Hamas' political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, did visit Morocco on two occasions, the context in which the recent visit takes place is unique, shaped by major developments in Jerusalem.
These events culminated in the "Sword of Jerusalem" (or Seif Al-Quds) - Hamas' attempt to change both the course of the conflict and its rules on multiple levels. As for Hamas' origins as a strand of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its connection to the Islamic Republic of Iran which gives it support and supplies, these, in particular, are what make the reception of its delegation so unexpected.
Ambiguity from the Kingdom
There is no such thing as coincidence when it comes to the policies and actions of states, even when those actions seem strategically inexplicable to most. On the surface, there is no clear motive driving the official Moroccan regime towards a rapprochement with Hamas. While it cannot be said that there is actual enmity between the two, neither is there sympathy on any level.
The rulers of Morocco have always chosen to deal with the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority rather than Hamas, seeing the PA as more similar to themselves in their style of governance. So what has led the Rabat government, today, to give an opening to Hamas in this public way, especially at such a sensitive time?
Some ascribe Morocco's political motive to the fact that Hamas is suddenly being perceived as a wild card when it comes to the Palestinian/Arab-Israeli conflict.
Hamas' recent victory in the Sword of Jerusalem operation, and its successful deployment of its military channels in a way that has effectively changed the rules of the conflict, has led to a tentative acceptance of the group in certain quarters. Even while the battle was raging, it didn't come as a surprise to hear statements calling for indirect communication to be opened with the group, for example from the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.
"It signals Morocco's desire to confirm that it has not retreated from its commitment vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue"
This shift in attitude has taken place on an international level, with exceptions like that of the Emirati Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nayhan, who unequivocally stated his opposition to Hamas, its political wing as well as its military one.
Additionally, the Biden administration brings with it a return to the traditional US discourse (publicly at least), which may place limits on how far-reaching the effects of this more nuanced international stance could be. However, the end of Donald Trump's presidential term has reduced the likelihood of problematic consequences for Morocco were it to take any step towards Hamas.
That said, there are no compelling reasons for the extent of the official welcome extended to Haniyeh's delegation, like the royal banquet laid on for him at the Guest Palace - which is designated for the reception of senior-ranking visitors.
All of this begs the question: why did Morocco receive Hamas in this manner? Political commentators have come up with several possible motives:
Firstly, it signals Morocco’s re-engagement with the Palestinians. Open support for the Palestinian cause in the kingdom had stagnated in recent years due to the Trump administration’s extreme bias towards Israel.
And although King Mohammed VI has become preoccupied with other governmental concerns like the question of Western Sahara since his ascension to the throne, his continued chairmanship of the Al-Quds Committee has meant he has not been able to ignore the Palestinian issue.
The change in the US leadership has also allowed regional players to approach the Palestinian cause with renewed vigour. In this context Morocco did not have a choice - it had to renew its commitment to the Palestinian cause, especially its most prominent symbol, Jerusalem.
Secondly, it signals Morocco's desire to confirm that it has not retreated from its commitment vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue, despite reopening Israel’s Liaison Office in Rabat. While its reassurances met with a cold reception by the Palestinian leadership, if not outright anger, it is hoped that by welcoming the Hamas delegation, Morocco will regain its traditional and preferred role, in fostering relations with the Palestinians and Israelis at the same time.
It is certainly significant that Hamas' reception took place just as Bennett received congratulations for securing the Knesset's approval. With these simultaneous actions, Rabat wants to send a message: Morocco's normalisation with Israel is not the same as the UAE's. This message would not have cut through without the official reception of Hamas.
"With these simultaneous actions Rabat wants to send a message: Morocco's normalisation with Israel is not the same as the UAE's"
Thirdly, Morocco wants to slow the pace of normalisation in the face of an intentional lack of interaction from Biden's administration regarding what it considers the issue of its territorial unity.
Even if the Rabat government keeps insisting that there is no link between normalisation and American recognition of Morocco's claim to Western Sahara, Moroccan diplomats are aware of the difficulty of splitting the two issues both domestically and abroad.
Furthermore, it seems short-sighted to turn a blind eye to Algeria's attempts to undermine Morocco's links to its southern region. By slowing normalisation arrangements and welcoming Hamas, Morocco’s rulers hope to regain popular trust. This is a year of elections, so we should expect other similar initiatives which make take a political, rights-based or social form.
Lastly, this is a decision by Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani, in response to the widespread contempt and multiple attacks he and his party received in the aftermath of the normalisation agreement - which established full diplomatic relations with Israel.
Even though it was clearly a decision taken higher up, Othmani received much of the blame from many civil and political groups for personally signing the agreement as prime minister and as the figurehead of an Islamic party. Perhaps Othmani believes that arranging the Hamas reception will grant him some respite.
However, it was not long before the news of the reception sparked a reaction. David Govrin, Israel's liaison officer in Rabat, posted a furious tweet, breaking all established diplomatic norms, condemning Othmani's congratulatory comments to Haniyeh immediately after the Sword of Jerusalem battle.
The Moroccan government did not respond when Israel's foreign ministry reposted Govrin's tweet, which he soon deleted from his Twitter account until an appropriate response had been crafted.
"Is Morocco attempting to play a successful intermediary role between Israel and Hamas?"
It is unlikely that Othmani's Justice and Development Party initiated the invitation of Haniyeh and his delegation to Morocco. While it is true that an official green light was given, it is clear that there were orders from above. The party is only a front - behind it are higher authorities who wish to send messages and achieve results.
Although it does not appear politically wise to have given such a valuable gift to the Justice and Development Party in a year of elections that are drawing closer, could there be other agendas in addition to the above? Is Morocco attempting to play a successful intermediary role between Israel and Hamas, analogous to its success in mediating between the Libyan groups for example?
Is there an attempt at a lesser role of mediation between the Palestinian factions, especially as the Palestinian Authority of Abu Mazen in Ramallah declines to reform the Palestinian ruling establishment while awaiting specific initiatives to resolve the conflict in the region?
The official visit of the Hamas delegation carries heavy significance. But those bloggers and politicians from Morocco who are interpreting this as just a cunning ideological strategy by either the Justice and Development Party or Hamas are making a mistake.
This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original click here.
Abdeddine Hamrouch is a Moroccan writer, researcher and university lecturer who writes for Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.