Middle East North Africa
MENASource December 24, 2020

How Moroccans reacted to normalization with Israel

By Zineb Riboua

“I was born in Morocco, in Boujad, and I feel like my dream has come true,” said Israeli Knesset member Amir Peretz in a video on December 13. Just days before, on December 10, US President Donald Trump announced that Morocco and Israel had agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations for the first time since the North African country cut off ties in 2000 following the Second Intifada. In return, the United States officially recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Moroccans were not surprised to see their country became the fourth Arab nation to normalize relations with Israel—it was the US’s recognition of Western Sahara that astonished them since  Morocco’s identity is intertwined with that of Western Sahara. In fact, Rabat, the Moroccan intelligence services, have had an unofficial relationship with Israel through its intelligence agency, the Mossad, for almost sixty years. Their history of intelligence-sharing not only shaped the establishment of Israel in 1948, but also enabled the current Alaouite dynasty to preserve the monarchy because the Mossad informed the late King Hassan II about plans to overthrow him.

The Moroccan reaction to normalization with Israel was not one-sided. There is a significant Moroccan Jewish community in Israel, with one million Jews of Moroccan origin, while around three thousand Jews live in Morocco. Additionally, seventy thousand Israelis visit Morocco each year. The Jewish community of both countries has always been one of the main pillars of their relationship. Despite issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Morocco remained—via its multiple synagogues, Jewish schools, and museums—a center of Jewish life in North Africa and the Arab world with the largest Jewish community—despite the exodus of Moroccan Jews during the mid-twentieth century following the establishment of Israel.

Over the last five years, King Mohammed VI launched several projects to promote the diversity of Morocco’s culture, including its Jewish community. In recent years, a reference to how Morocco was influenced by Jewish culture was added to Morocco’s constitution.

Upon hearing the news, the Moroccan Jewish community welcomed and celebrated the normalization. They shared on social media famous quotes of the late King Hassan II, a key figure who secretly held peace talks in the 1970s and negotiated the peace accords between the Arab states and Israel. Among those was a popularly shared quote: “When a Jew emigrates, Morocco loses a citizen, but he gains an ambassador.” The legacy of Sultan Mohamed V was also revived, as he is remembered for refusing to hand Jewish Moroccans to the collaborationist Vichy France, which wanted to enforce their laws on Morocco (then under the French protectorate) in the early 1940s. Interestingly, when asked about their views on normalization, the Moroccan Amazigh community—who overwhelmingly emphasize cultural and social components—saw the normalization as a triumph against Arabism.

Western Sahara

On December 10, Moroccans turned their attention to national television, as the establishment of a US Consulate in Dakhla, a prominent city in Western Sahara, was officially announced. It is impossible to fully comprehend the average Moroccan citizen’s reaction to normalization with Israel without referring to the Trump administration’s decision, since many consider cooperating with Israel to be a pragmatic choice, and would have fiercely opposed it if Western Sahara was out of the equation.

Recent events also played in favor of this normalization, such as the current Cold War between Algeria and Morocco in the El Guergarat conflict. Algiers backs the Polisario Front—a Sahrawi rebel liberation movement with the aim of ousting Morocco to create a Democratic Republic in the Western Sahara—which declared war on Morocco on November 14. Because of recent events, some Israelis—Moroccan Israelis included—organized a demonstration in support of Rabat, chanting in Moroccan Arabic, “The Sahara is Moroccan,” and “We have our King, it’s King Mohammed VI.”

Therefore, it is assumed that Israel still has issues with Algeria, which does not recognize the Jewish state and has a long history of fighting against it during the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War. On Twitter, some Moroccans used the hashtag “ # المغرب_أولا” (Morocco First) and “ #البوليساريو_تحتضر” ( Polisario is dying) to signal their support of Rabat’s approach towards Israel, as they consider it a significant step towards countering the Polisario Front’s actions.

Now that Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara is recognized, Rabat wants the movement to be internationally categorized as a terrorist organization.

Concerns over normalization

Given the position of King Muhammad VI as the chairman of Al Quds Committee of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state, he reassured Moroccans shortly after the announcement of normalization by saying that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is as important as Western Sahara. “Morocco always puts the Palestinian issue in the rank of the Moroccan Sahara issue, and Morocco’s work to consolidate its Moroccanness will never be, neither today nor in the future, at the expense of the Palestinian people’s struggle for their legitimate rights,” he affirmed.

Nonetheless, Moroccans expressed their concerns online over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, declaring that the normalization was a trade-off between the Palestinian state and Western Sahara. Many used the hashtag  #التطبيع_خيانة (normalization is treason) to express their disapproval. In addition, six Moroccan organizations—among them the Moroccan Coalition of Human Rights, one of the country’s largest non-governmental organizations, and the Solidarity Committee with the Palestinian People in Casablanca—called on social media for a demonstration in front of parliament on December 14. However, because of the state of emergency issued over the coronavirus pandemic, they were dispersed by authorities.

Interestingly, Muhammad Amkraz, the Minister of Employment and Professional Integration and a member of the Justice and Development Youth Party—Morocco’s prominent Islamist party—declared his opposition to normalization with Israel. His statement prompted a petition calling for his dismissal, revealing a deepening political divide inside Morocco. As a result, Moroccans opposing normalization are now being considered unpatriotic for not supporting relations with Israel as it pertains to Western Sahara’s status.

Besides seeking to restore diplomatic relations, the Israel-Morocco agreement is considered an important step to renew a relationship. On a practical level, it marks the start of multiple economic, cultural, and social collaborations. It is in line with this logic that Moroccans ardently hope that, by having good diplomatic ties with both Israel and Palestine, it will help a future peace mediation as the late King Hassan II once negotiated.

Zineb Riboua is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University, and founder of the China in MENA Project. Follow her on Twitter: @zinebriboua.

Image: Unidentified Moroccan and Israeli officials sign memorandums of understanding during a visit by Israeli envoys to Rabat, Morocco, December 22, 2020. Picture taken December 22, 2020. REUTERS/Shereen Talaat