Intel: How Israel — and Netanyahu — stand to gain from Pompeo's Morocco visit

al-monitor US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds a news conference at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Nov. 20, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Francois Lenoir.
Julian Pecquet

Julian Pecquet

@JPecquet_ALM

Topics covered

us-israel relations, us middle east policy, john bolton, mike pompeo, algeria-morocco tensions, nato, moroccan king

Dec 5, 2019

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Morocco today for a one-day trip aimed boosting ties with a country that the State Department deemed a “critical partner” across a range of issues ahead of the visit.

Pompeo is expected to discuss a broad array of topics with King Mohammed VI and top government officials including energy cooperation, Iran's influence in the region and Rabat's disputed control over the Western Sahara. Looming over the visit, however, is what embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu perceives as a historic opportunity to normalize relations between Morocco and Israel.

“Morocco plays a great role across the region as an important partner in promoting tolerance [and] has these quiet ties and relationship with Israel as well,” a senior department official told reporters last week. The kingdom also houses the largest Jewish community in the Arab world, with some 3,000 members.

Why it matters:  Pompeo is the highest-ranking US administration official to visit Morocco. This visit comes after President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner made his second trip to the country this summer as part of his sales pitch for his long-delayed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. First daughter Ivanka Trump also visited the kingdom last month to promote the Trump administration's new Women's Global Development and Prosperity Initiative targeting women in developing countries. The United States has been without an ambassador to the country since 2017 (the nomination of David Fischer, a Michigan car dealer and Trump donor, has been in limbo in the Senate for months).

Notably, Netanyahu met with Pompeo in Portugal on Wednesday just ahead of the Morocco trip and pressed him to keep the pressure on a “tottering” Iran. The Israeli press reports that Pompeo will push the kingdom to normalize ties with Israel, a key priority for Netanyahu as he seeks a diplomatic win as he battles graft charges. The prime minister was mulling a historic trip to Morocco earlier this year ahead of Knesset elections, Israeli media reported at the time, after meeting with Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly summit in 2018.

Meanwhile, Trump has recently tapped Kushner to oversee construction of his promised wall on the southern border, the latest sign that his Israeli-Palestinian peace plan appears to be going nowhere fast.

Trusted partner:  Ahead of the visit the State Department approved a $4.25 million sale of 36 Apache attack helicopters to Morocco, a rare font of stability in North Africa amid political upheaval in Algeria and Tunisia and civil war in Libya. Already warm ties between the two countries got an extra boost after the departure of national security adviser John Bolton, a rare supporter of the pro-independence push in the Moroccan-administered Western Sahara. The pro-Rabat Morocco World News also reported that it is the first time since 1982 that a US secretary of state has visited the country without also stopping by its regional rival Algeria.

What's next:  Despite Israel's hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough, Morocco has been reluctant to step up to the plate. In his role as commander of the faithful, King Mohammed VI has been critical of the Trump administration's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. And just this Tuesday Morocco's House of Representatives condemned what it called US and Israeli attempts to legitimize “colonization policies” after Pompeo said the United States would no longer consider Jewish settlements in the West Bank illegal under international law.

Israel is also weighing actions that may make a rapprochement difficult. Israel's envoy to the United Nations, Danny Danon, said this week he will push for the world body to recognize Jews expelled from the Middle East over the past century as refugees, saying there were 850,000 such cases from Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Morocco.

Know more:  Make sure to register – for free – for Al-Monitor's award-winning lobbying series to get the complete picture on Morocco's fight against Algeria and the Polisario Front for influence in Washington. And read congressional correspondent Bryant Harris on how Rabat has been playing the “Iran card” to garner US support for its stance on the Western Sahara.