October 7, 2021
Morocco and Israel are friendlier than ever thanks to the Abraham Accords. But what does this mean for the rest of North Africa?
It is no secret that most North African countries do not love Israel. When the Jewish State was created in 1948, no North African country recognized it. Consequently, Jews living in North Africa—Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia—were forced to flee or left on their own volition because they no longer felt safe. Between 1948 and the early 1970s, it is estimated that some eight hundred thousand Jews were expelled or left their Arab homelands.
The year 2020 marked a turning point for this sad chapter of history. On August 13, 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords, officially recognizing the State of Israel. Other Arab and Muslim-majority countries soon followed suit. Months later, on December 10, 2020, Morocco signed a normalization agreement with Israel, becoming the second North African country—after Egypt in 1978 with the Camp David Accords—to recognize the Jewish State. Israel also signed an agreement with Sudan on October 23, 2020 as part of the accords.
While the Abraham Accords brought some Arab countries closer to the West and Israel, it undoubtedly created chasms with others. The agreement between Israel and Morocco sparked a series of chain events in neighboring North African countries that will likely have lasting consequences on the economic, security, and socio-political relations in the region.
Israel and Morocco: more than just a cordial relationship
Relations between Morocco and Israel have always been more than just cordial. Although Morocco did not formally recognize Israel until the Abraham Accords, it maintained informal ties with the Jewish State and, unlike many other Arab countries, allowed Israelis to visit the country. In 2020 alone, around seventy thousand Israelis visited Morocco.
Morocco is one of four Arab League countries to normalize relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords. Rabat allegedly did so on the premise that the United States would recognize the country’s claims over Western Sahara, a disputed territory which both Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front have contended to be theirs since 1975, when Spain withdrew from the territory.
The relationship between Morocco and Israel has strong historical roots. Morocco was home to the largest Jewish community in the Arab world, most of whom came from Spain after the 1491 expulsion by the Spanish Catholic monarchy. After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, many Moroccan Jews were forced to emigrate to the country as a consequence of rising antisemitism in local cities across Morocco. Today, Israel is home to some one million Moroccan Jews and is strongly interconnected with the Kingdom.
As mentioned before, Israel and Morocco made their longstanding—albeit concealed—friendship official in December 2020 when they signed a normalization agreement that ensured “full diplomatic, peaceful, and friendly relations” under US patronage. While Morocco attempted to minimize the agreements back home, claiming that a full normalization with Israel was off the table, the international community perceived the signing of the accords as otherwise. It was clear from the beginning that the two countries had undergone a diplomatic rapprochement, strengthening bilateral ties and cooperation in the fields of trade, tourism, and defense. Even direct official flights between Tel Aviv and Marrakesh have commenced. In July, the two countries signed a formal cybersecurity agreement to share information, research, and development on cyber warfare. On August 11, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited Morocco, signaling that his government is placing its relationship with Morocco high on its agenda.
Moroccan-Israeli ties and what they mean for North Africa
Reactions to Morocco’s normalization with Israel were mixed amongst other North African countries. Algeria wasted no time instrumenting the Abraham Accords by using aggressive, anti-Israel rhetoric to justify its disputes with Morocco. In December 2020, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djera decried the agreement as a move to bring “the Zionist entity” closer to Algeria’s border. Algiers has also used the agreement as a scapegoat to explain the recent wildfires that have devastated the country, insisting Israel is behind them. On August 25, Algeria announced its decision to cut all diplomatic ties with Morocco in an effort to “totally eradicate” the Movement for Self-determination of Kabylie, which is a terrorist movement that “receives the support and aid of foreign parties…Morocco and the Zionist entity,” according to Algiers.
As a result, Algeria has also strengthened its alignment with China and Russia. Algeria shares close bilateral relations with Russia, particularly in defense cooperation, and the two countries meet regularly through a joint economic commission to discuss partnership options. Algeria and China also share close ties, evidenced by the national development plans it signed with China under the Belt and Road Initiative to boost industrialization in the country, among other things. It comes as no surprise they were signed only six months after Morocco formalized the accords with Israel. In the coming years, Algeria will likely pursue closer bilateral ties with both Beijing and Moscow to counter what it perceives to be a Western-led, pro-Moroccan plot over Western Sahara via the Abraham Accords.
Egypt unsurprisingly responded positively to the normalization of ties between Morocco and Israel, having already a lukewarm relationship with the Jewish State. However, it is hard to predict where Cairo will turn to next. Egypt and Algeria have traditionally maintained good relations dating back to Egypt’s support of Algeria’s National Liberation Front during its war of independence against France between 1954 and 1962. Egypt is deeply interested in the events in neighboring Libya given its hope to see General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army prevail in the conflict, and has recently found common ground with Algeria on the Libya crisis over achieving greater “stability and security” in the country. Cairo’s agreement with Algiers over Libya may motivate Egypt to pit itself against Morocco in an effort to showcase its support to Algeria, thus, strengthening their alliance, given that Egypt has already backed the Polisario Front over the disputed Western Sahara. Cairo’s eagerness to have a stake in Libya’s future could pivot Egypt towards distancing itself from the US’s recognition of Morocco’s claims over Western Sahara.
Tunisia, like Libya, is too busy dealing with its domestic problems to focus its attention on the Abraham Accords. Tunisia is facing a potential constitutional crisis after President Kais Saied announced the indefinite freezing of parliament in late August and is attempting to centralize powers in his hands. In August, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi supported Saied’s actions, signaling an alignment between the two North African nations. It’s worth noting that Tunisia has never hidden its disapproval of the accords. Therefore, an anti-Morocco front consisting of Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt is not out of the question.
Morocco-Israel ties: What’s next?
The ongoing strengthening of ties between Israel and Morocco sheds light, once more, over just how tense the balance in North Africa really is. While the move to recognize Israel was part of a larger US-led strategy, with the potential to unite several Arab countries under a common front, the reality is far more complex. Morocco is set to strengthen its ties with Israel as demonstrated by its August announcement to open an embassy in Israel, but will also face the daunting task of explaining to the Palestinians that Morocco still supports their cause. Regardless, it is clear that Morocco is intent on increasing its strategic importance on the world stage, particularly in North Africa, and the Abraham Accords are the perfect place to start.
Karim Mezran is director of the North Africa Initiative and resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.
Alissa Pavia is assistant director for the North Africa Initiative within the Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.
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