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Morocco balances new alliance with Israel with traditional support for Palestinians

Rabat was quick to condemn Israeli security forces’ storming of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, but rejects local demands to sever a relationship that was brokered by the US and provides access to state-of-the-art military equipment

Morocco
Protestors gather outside the Moroccan parliament building in Rabat on April 7, to show support for Palestine.FADEL SENNA (AFP)

As tensions flare up in the Holy Land once again, Morocco finds itself torn between consolidating its new alliance with Israel, which has given Rabat a position of strength in the dispute over Western Sahara, and maintaining its traditional Arab support for the Palestinian cause in Jerusalem, which King Mohammed VI himself advances as chairman of the Al-Quds Committee of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

It is a difficult balancing act that Morocco has been performing since December 2020, when the United States recognized its sovereignty over Western Sahara — a former Spanish colony where Morocco and the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic have been stuck in a decades-long dispute — in exchange for Morocco normalizing relations with Israel. And this balancing act has now been destabilized by the rise to power of the most right-wing government in the history of the Jewish state, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and backed by the anti-Arab far right and the main party of West Bank settlers.

“We demand that the legal, religious and historical status of Al-Quds [the Arab name for Jerusalem] be respected,” Morocco’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement last week, as tension erupted on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. After a period of ambiguity during the clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in the first months of the year, Morocco has now rushed to condemn Israeli security forces’ incursion into the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. Rabat’s denunciation of “the aggression and terror against the faithful in holy places and in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan” marks an escalation in tone towards Israel, with whom Morocco maintains a security cooperation agreement — the first of its kind among the Arab states.

This swift diplomatic reaction follows an unusual confrontation between the Justice and Development Party (PJD, the largest Islamist party in Morocco), and Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, who has the direct backing of the king, who in turn enjoys the constitutional mandate to direct foreign policy. In an unsparing communiqué released by the Moroccan state news agency MAP, the Royal Palace responded with unusual severity, accusing the PJD of interference and stating that “the Kingdom’s international relations cannot be the subject of blackmail by anyone or for any consideration.”

This PJD governed Morocco uninterruptedly from 2011 to 2021, and during its mandate endorsed the establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel. Now in the opposition, it is calling for the severance of relations with “the Zionist entity” in light of the outbreak of violence in the Middle East. Former prime minister and leader of the party, Abdelilah Benkirane, went so far as to denounce the Royal Cabinet, starting an arm-wrestling match with the strongmen who control Morocco’s levers of power from behind the scenes.

Netanyahu’s extremist policy towards Palestinians, and his refusal to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, as claimed by Rabat, threaten to end Morocco’s participation to the Abraham Accords for Arab–Israeli normalization. Israel maintains a diplomatic office in Rabat, but the Moroccan government will not authorize the establishment of an embassy without Israel first recognizing its authority over the former Spanish colony, as the U.S. has already done. Moreover, U.S. sources in the Moroccan capital confirm that Washington is not considering opening a consulate in Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara, as requested by Rabat.

The impetus for the rapprochement between countries that already maintained covert cooperation with Israel on security matters came from Washington toward the end of the Trump administration. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain had normalized relations with Israel before Morocco did. These states, joined by Egypt, formed a new alliance with the United States vis-à-vis Iran. A ministerial summit organized in March of last year in the Negev Desert of southern Israel laid the foundations for what many hoped would be the seed for the creation of a Middle Eastern NATO.

Seeking new international recognition, Morocco sought to host the second convocation of the Abraham Accords last month in Dakhla, in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, but the meeting has been indefinitely postponed despite having been planned during a meeting back in January, in Abu Dhabi.

The Moroccan press views the summit as effectively cancelled, in view of the reluctance of allied countries to meet in a disputed territory, which, according to the UN, is still pending decolonization, and which Morocco considers its own. “Without a new Negev summit, the entire logic of the Abraham Accords is now threatened with extinction,” warned the French weekly Le Desk, in a recent diplomatic analysis. The rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran mediated by China also calls into question Riyadh’s membership in the Middle East entente, which was something sought by both the United States and Israel.

Toward a two-state solution

As chairman of the Al-Quds Committee, a standing committee within the OIC charged with the preservation of the Arab and Muslim character of Jerusalem, the King of Morocco has been careful about defending the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The diplomatic communiqué recently issued by Minister Bourita warns that the violation of the status quo at Al-Aqsa threatens to “nullify all hopes for peace in the region.”

Morocco’s strategic alliance with Israel has endowed its military with certain advantages, including the acquisition of drones and state-of-the-art missiles, as well as access to intelligence capabilities that have altered the balance of power against the Polisario Front — a rebel Sahrawi nationalist liberation movement claiming Western Sahara — and Algeria, which supports Sahrawi nationalism. The technological advantage of the Moroccan army over Algeria’s supremacy in numbers of troops and weapons on the ground has been verified by the United Nations, through Minurso, the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara first deployed in 1991 following a cease-fire which was formally broken at the end of 2020.

There has also been a dramatic increase in bilateral trade between the new allies, with a 32% increase in 2022 in favor of Israel, which sent more than 200,000 tourists to Morocco, Agence France-Presse reports. More than 700,000 Israelis, about 8% of the population, are Jews of Moroccan origin.

Years ago, thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators would take to the streets of Morocco. Now, only several dozen have gathered in front of the parliament in Rabat to protest against “the crimes committed by the occupier of Palestine on the Temple Mount,” in the words of activist Sion Assidon. Recently, around one hundred social and political leaders joined Assidon in signing a manifesto calling on the Moroccan government, together with the PJD, to reconsider the normalization of relations with Israel and to side with international justice.

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