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Israeli ministers fast-track deepening of ties with Morocco

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Regional Cooperation Minister Issawi Freij and Justice Minister Gideon Saar are only a few of the Israeli ministers and senior officials who have visited Morocco recently.
Moroccan Justice Minister Abdellatif Wehbe (R) and Israeli Justice Minister Gideon Saar (L) shake hands after signing an agreement, Rabat, Morocco, July 26 , 2022.

MARRAKESH, Morocco — Israeli tourists are flooding the streets of Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakesh and Fez these days. For many of them, visiting Morocco is a journey into their family’s history and roots. The visitor book of the El Azma synagogue in the mellah (Jewish quarter) of Marrakesh indicates that clearly, with countless messages in Hebrew thanking the Moroccan community for preserving the building. More so, Moroccan tourist guides, shop owners and even the average Moroccan have been quick to adapt to this new reality, ever since the two countries normalized ties following the signing of the Abraham Accords two years ago.

Indeed, bilateral relations are flourishing. Israel’s Ambassador to Morocco David Govrin is a busy man. "Yesterday, I visited the tomb of Rabbi Amram Ben Diwan in the province of Ouezzane, on the occasion of the traditional Hiloula celebration held in the presence of many Jews from Morocco, Israel and around the world," tweeted Govrin Aug. 12, adding his appreciation for the efforts taken my Muslim Moroccans to preserve Jewish holy sites across the country.

Govrin arrived in Rabat in January 2021 as charge d’affaires. Nine months later he was officially nominated Israel’s ambassador to the country. Since his arrival, he has been crisscrossing Morocco, visiting Jewish historic sites and promoting opportunities for deepening bilateral trade relations and also ties between the two civil societies. On Aug. 2, he signed a contract with a Moroccan engineering company for the construction of the new Israeli Embassy in Rabat.

The last few weeks were especially hectic for the Israeli diplomatic team there, with a series of official visits.

The most recent such visit took place Aug. 1. Israel’s top cop, Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai, arrived for a first official visit to Morocco. Shabtai came back to Israel in the early morning hours of Aug. 5, just before the start of the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) Operation Breaking Dawn. Thus, media attention in Israel was placed elsewhere.

Morocco’s Director General of National Security and Territorial Surveillance Abdellatif Hammouchi received Shabtai in Rabat Aug. 2. According to the Moroccans, the goal of the meeting was strengthening bilateral cooperation and "lay the foundations for a partnership in the security field, serving the common interests of Morocco and Israel." The Moroccan media also said the two men discussed establishing mechanisms for sharing experience and expertise in different security fields, including the fight against terrorism and against cross-border organized crime.

On Aug. 11, Israeli media came back to addressing the important visit of Shabtai. A Ynet article cited unnamed Israeli sources who noted that the parties agreed in principle on significant steps that have never been formalized before in the relations between the two countries, including on extraditing criminals, and the exchange of professional knowledge in the fields of fighting crime, fighting terrorism and security technologies.

The visit of Shabtai followed another senior security visit from Israel, that of IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi on July 19. During his three-day visit, Kochavi met with the minister delegate in charge of defense administration, Abdellatif Loudiyi, Inspector General of the Royal Armed Forces Lt. Gen. Belkhir El Farouk and other senior Moroccan security officials. It was the first ever public visit by Israel’s top soldier in uniform to the Arab state. Defense Minister Benny Gantz had visited Morocco officially in November 2021.

Ties between Israel and Morocco grew in recent weeks in other fields as well.

On July 24, Israel’s Minister for Regional Cooperation Issawi Freij arrived in Morocco for an official visit. Freij was accompanied by a group of seven Israeli Jewish and Arab journalists who met with Moroccan counterparts and with other Moroccan decision-makers. Freij himself met with several Moroccan ministers during his visit, advancing university cooperation and stipends from students on exchange programs. He also gave several interviews in Arabic to leading Moroccan media outlets. 

Justice Minister Gideon Saar visited Rabat in the same week. On July 26, he signed with his Moroccan counterpart Abdellatif Ouahbi a judicial memorandum of understanding. Tweeting after the signature, Saar said that the agreement "will promote a common dialogue and mutual learning between the countries on many legal issues such as promoting public defense in Morocco, cooperation between the Sharia courts in both countries and more."

The following day, Saar met with the president of the Moroccan Football Federation Fouzi Lekjaa. The two men agreed to hold a friendly game between the national youth teams. A few hours later, Saar met with Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita.

Also on July 27, the Israeli and Moroccan national volleyball federations signed a cooperation agreement. The signature ceremony took place at the office of the Moroccan culture and sports minister, with veteran adviser to the Moroccan king Andre Azoulay present at the event.  

Israeli diplomats told Al-Monitor they detect in recent months real political willingness in Rabat to deepen relations with Jerusalem. Thus, for instance, when Israel launched 10 days ago Gaza Operation Breaking Dawn, Morocco’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying, "The Kingdom of Morocco is following with great concern the serious deterioration of the situation in the Gaza Strip, due to the return of acts of violence and fighting, which have caused human casualties and material damage." The statement, noted the Israeli diplomats, did not point a blaming finger specifically at Jerusalem.

Celebrating bilateral relations, Morocco’s Beach Sambo team is expected to arrive in Israel next week, for the first time, to participate in the World Beach Sambo Championships that will take place in the city of Bat Yam. Speaking on the phone Aug. 15 with his Israeli counterparts, head of the Moroccan Sambo Federation Dalil Skalli, who also heads the African Sambo Federation, expressed his excitement over arriving in the country and participating in the event.

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