Morocco’s balancing act on Israel and Palestine

Moroccans protest against the "deal of the century" and want the government, which recently took possession of Israeli spy drones, to do more to aid the Palestinian cause.

al-monitor Moroccans wave the Palestinian flag during a demonstration against the US Middle East peace plan, Rabat, Morocco, Feb. 9, 2020.  Photo by FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images.

Feb 20, 2020

On Feb. 9, the broad, sunny boulevard running through the center of Rabat, Morocco, overflowed with protesters. Crowded between newly whitewashed facades and an imposing parade of palm trees, they numbered well over 10,000 (one attendee estimated tens of thousands). 

Adorned with Palestinian keffiyehs and images of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, this mass of Moroccans had come out to condemn US President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” peace plan that Palestinians see as inflammatory.

The protesters' main targets were Washington and Tel Aviv, but they also had harsh words for Moroccan political leaders they believed responded too favorably to Trump’s plan. 

Rabat’s position “doesn’t reflect the position of the Moroccan people,” Youssef Raissouni, a leader of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, told Al-Monitor. “Moroccan people believe in the rights of the Palestinians, and the state believes in its interests, and its interests are with the US leadership.”

Trump had proudly unveiled the plan Jan. 28 in the company of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but no Palestinian representatives. The plan, which involved no Palestinian input, grants Israel most of its demands and hazily offers Palestinians a path toward a future sovereign state. 

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said redrawn borders would turn Palestinian land into “Swiss cheese,” severed by Israeli-controlled roads and annexed settlements. Also, many of Israel’s 1.9 million Arab citizens could face loss of citizenship and relocation. The plan also includes possible, but vague, incentives for investment in the Palestinian economy. 

Morocco proudly carries its solidarity with Palestinians as a national cause. King Mohammed VI has long led the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Committee. Political parties from across the spectrum led the Feb. 9 march in cooperation with labor unions and civil society groups. 

But the kingdom is also a consistent ally of the pro-Israel United States. Rabat “always follows the position of the US,” lamented Raissouni. “Sometimes we feel that the Moroccan government doesn’t really have autonomy.”

The kingdom regularly points out that it was the first government to recognize the United States as a nation, all the way back in 1786. Today, military, economic and political cooperation between the two countries is strong. The Moroccan state has had to walk a fine line between backing its superpower friend’s support of Israel and heeding its people’s support of the Palestinians. 

After the 1993 Oslo Accord, signed between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Morocco established formal ties with Tel Aviv. But after the second intifada in 2000, they were severed.

Israel keeps diplomatic relations with only two Arab countries — Egypt and Jordan. In recent years, backed by the United States, Netanyahu has made a flurry of advances toward Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman, with some successes. Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs praised Trump's plan for its “positive elements” Feb. 13. Also this month, Netanyahu secretly met with a senior Sudanese leader in Uganda. 

Former Qatari prime minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani recently tweeted that several Arab nations — mainly Gulf states and “possibly Morocco” — may sign a “non-aggression agreement” with Israel, a claim Rabat did not confirm. Some months earlier, Washington pushed for such a pact.

Nearly all of the countries involved have welcomed Israeli ministers in the past year. Only Morocco has denied Israel’s diplomatic overtures. Netanyahu has sought many times to meet with Mohammed, but has been summarily rejected. But under the surface, Morocco has long maintained active economic and military relations with Israel.

Between 2014 and 2017, Morocco and Israel enjoyed $149 million worth of trade (as reported by Israel; Moroccan trade data makes no reference to Israel). The same week that Trump announced his plan, three Israeli-made spy drones arrived in Morocco as part of a $48 million arms deal. Thousands of Israeli tourists visit Morocco every year. 

These ties are kept behind closed doors for apparent fear of public opposition. The Moroccan head of foreign trade insisted to parliament in 2016 that “Morocco has no commercial relations with [Israel].” 

Sioun Assidoun, a Moroccan activist involved with the international campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, has organized boycotts of Israeli dates and a transport company that ships between the two countries. 

“Even if several Arab governments are ready to accept [Trump’s plan], it is not accepted by the people,” Assidoun told Al-Monitor. 

Responding to Trump’s plan, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said the kingdom “appreciates” the US administration’s “constructive peace efforts.” 

He added, however, that Morocco would examine the plan’s details “very carefully” and that Palestinian acceptance is “fundamental.” He also affirmed that East Jerusalem must be the capital of a future Palestinian state, contradicting Trump’s vision of the city as Israel’s “indivisible” capital.

Parliamentarians, namely from the dominant Justice and Development Party, lashed out at Bourita for being too conciliatory. He returned fire, chiding them not to be “more Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves” and reminding that the question of sovereignty over the Sahara is Morocco’s first priority, not Palestine. 

Those remarks drew fury from all sides. The National Action Group for Palestine, one of the major organizers of the protest in Rabat, said in a press release that “any attempt to barter Palestine and Jerusalem for national causes is condemnable.”

It was also made clear that “any position that goes against the popular consensus of Moroccans must be rejected.” The Feb. 9 march morphed into not only a condemnation of the US plan but a reprimand of the Moroccan Foreign Ministry. 

Critics cited a speech the king gave in 2014, saying that Morocco has Jerusalem “a priority cause, in the same way as is [the Sahara] and have included it among the constants of [its] foreign policy.”

After Bourita’s comments, Rabat sought to dampen the flames. Morocco’s head of government, Saadedine El Othmani, affirmed the state’s support for Palestine in a phone call to Hamas’ senior politician, Ismail Haniyeh, and in an interview with Arabi21. Mohammed sent Bourita to assure Abbas of Morocco’s support. 

Assidoun said Bourita’s comments were a “misunderstanding” about Morocco’s real position, which is “more ambiguous” and “closer to the French or European position.”

“I don’t think the state has changed its strategy,” Raissouni said. Though it remains under strong US influence, it always seeks to “preserve its image as a one of the main defenders of the Palestinian question,” he said.

Netanyahu has been trying since 2019 to negotiate a deal of his own where if he could convince the United States to recognize Morocco’s claim to the Sahara, Morocco would restore formal relations with Israel. There is no sign that such a deal will be realized. 

Yet Jared Kushner, Trump’s adviser, son-in-law and architect of the "deal of the century,” visited Morocco twice in 2019 and met with the king. Guided by a Moroccan friend of Kushner, Bourita secretly met with Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September. Rabat also ramped up aggression toward Iran — Israel and the United States’ top antagonist — around that time.

Assidoun said a Sahara-for-Palestine agreement would be the “the worst deal for Morocco because it would link Morocco’s so-called national cause to war crimes.” 

Normalizing relations with Morocco could help Netanyahu win over Israel’s “so-called Moroccan vote” in the upcoming elections in March, Assidoun said. Israelis of Moroccan descent make up Israel’s second-largest ethnic Jewish community after those of Russian descent. Less than 3,000 Moroccan Jews remain in Morocco. 

Assidoun is, as he told Al-Monitor, “of Jewish descent,” but hesitates to identify with the Moroccan Jewish community, which he says is generally “under the influence of the Zionist position.”

Diplomatic success with an Arab state could also woo members of opposition parties to support the prime minister. Netanyahu also may believe that Morocco’s normalization with Israel could be “like a domino,” leading other Arab states to follow suit, Assidoun said. 

But as enthusiastic as Netanyahu or even the Moroccan state may be to ease relations and gain US support, Moroccans as a whole are not. Some, Assidoun said, are interested in profiting from stronger ties with Israel, but “there is enormous support … for Palestine. This can be just a seed.” He hopes that seed will grow into an unequivocal state position.

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