Moroccan-Israeli peace rapprochement: An (un)expected surprise? | Middle East | News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 11.12.2020

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Middle East

Moroccan-Israeli peace rapprochement: An (un)expected surprise?

Given the historic legacy of Jews and Morocco, the latest peace signal may have been expected. However, Palestinians are frustrated and a new area of conflict might arise in Western Sahara.

 Moroccan Jewish man looks out his window at the street below from his house

A Moroccan Jewish man at home in the Jewish quarter in Marrakesh

The past month has been marked by two major shifts in the historic relations between Israel and Morocco: The most recent is the announcement by the United States on the resumption of Israeli-Moroccan diplomatic ties "to advance regional stability." This is the fourth peaceful handshake with a Muslim country under the American Abraham Accords framework after similar deals with the UAE, Sudan and Bahrain. As part of the deal, the US will recognize Morocco's claim over the disputed Western Sahara region.

The legacy lasts until today

Morocco's reconnection with Israel marks the return to their previous low-level diplomatic relations which had developed in the context of the Oslo accords in the 1990s and had ended with the Second Intifada in 2000. However, cultural ties date back to the pre-Roman Jewish colonies of Mauretania Tingitana around 2,000 years ago.

The Moroccan Slat Al Fassiyine Synagoge in Fes

Place of worship: The Slat Al Fassiyine Synagoge in Fes in Morocco

Despite major waves of migration from Morocco to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, Morocco is still home to the largest remaining Jewish community in North Africa, while Jews with Moroccan heritage make up the largest minority group of Jewish immigrants in Israel, totaling around 900,000.  

Serge Berdugo, head of the Council of Israelite Communities of Morocco, highlighted in an interview with the World Jewish Congress that around 6,500 Jews still live in Morocco, while the Moroccan Jewish diaspora maintains close ties to the country. "Each year around 50,000 Moroccan Jews from abroad come to visit the country."

Moroccan Jews celebrate a holiday together with Jewish tourists of Moroccan origin

Thriving tourism: Moroccan Jews and Israeli Jewish tourists participate in a religious ceremony to observe the holiday of Sukkot.

Under-the-radar lobbying for Judeo-Moroccan ties

This month's first major development was the announcement by Morocco's King Muhammed VI to include Jewish history and culture in the curricula of public primary schools. Malcolm Hoenlein, vice-chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Jason Guberman, the executive director of the American Sephardi Federation, said the move is "the latest assertive action by King Mohammed VI to perpetuate the Judeo-Moroccan legacy as an integral part of the Moroccan identity."

Both steps are seen as signs of long-lasting under-the-radar lobbying for Judeo-Moroccan ties. At the same time, the royal palace in Rabat hasn't stopped reiterating its support for the Palestinians.

"It is not new that the Arab countries normalize their relations with Israel based on their interests despite them saying that they maintain their position on the Palestinian issue. But every normalization with Israel without including the Palestinian's rights, harms the Palestinian cause, no matter how we try to beautify it," says Nashat Al-Aqtash, a professor of media at the Palestinian Birzeit University.

Unknown reactions in a different area of conflict

Sarah Feuer, an expert on the region and research fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, says that she "had underestimated the degree to which the Moroccans felt this is their chance to get American recognition." However, Feuer also warns that there might be an uptick in violence in the region that could turn into a "heavy price for this decision."

Two members of the Sahrawi tribe, Maroccos minority in the western sahara

What' next for the Sahrawi tribe?

After the US recognition of Morocco's sovereignty and the de facto annexation of the local Sahrawi nation in Western Sahara, Feuer believes it is reasonable to assume that Sahrawi-backer Algeria is going to react. The result could be a shift that moves the focus from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to increasing tension in ties between Morocco and Algeria.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz took to Twitter to state his support for the move, however, Feuer emphasizes that there "is no peace agreement here now."

The royal palace in Morocco has issued a statement thanking the US for its recognition of their sovereignty and indicating that they plan to take a number of steps, such as creating liaison offices and resuming direct flights from and to Israel.

In Israel, however, the destiny of the Sahrawi nation does not appear to be a priority. On Thursday, the first day of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu focused on celebrating the new ties with Morocco. 

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