Israel war on Gaza hinders budding thaw with Morocco

AFP , Friday 24 Nov 2023

Israel's fledgling rapprochement with Morocco, which had made steady progress in the three years since the two governments normalised relations, has been thrown into reverse by Israel's war on Gaza.

Morocco Israel flags
File photo: Moroccan and Israeli flags. As Israel's war has worn on, Rabat has issued increasingly strongly-worded statements. AFP


Pro-Palestinian demonstrators have returned to the streets of the North African nation, as the death toll from some seven weeks of Israeli bombardment in Gaza has risen to nearly 15,000, many of them women and children.

The Israeli liaison office in Rabat was reportedly evacuated last month amid security concerns and Israeli visitors have disappeared from tourism hubs like Marrakesh and Essaouira, along with many of the restaurants opened to cater for them.

All flights between the two countries have been suspended since the outbreak of Israel's war on October 7 which sparked a departure of Israeli tourists and investors from Morocco.

"Overnight there was no one left," said Michel Cohen, the French-Israeli owner of a kosher restaurant in Marrakesh that is now closed.

Out of 14 kosher restaurants that had opened in Marrakesh since Morocco's normalisation of relations with Israel in 2020, 12 have since closed.

Normalisation deal

The 2020 normalisation deal between Israel and Morocco led to a flurry of ministerial visits between the two countries and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expected in Rabat before the end of this year.

But the scale of public anger over Israel's war in Gaza has made such a visit unthinkable for the time being at least.

"Civil society expressed its discontent and Rabat had to take into account this popular demand," said Zakaria Abouddahab, an international relations professor at Mohammed V University.

As Israel's war has worn on, Rabat has issued increasingly strongly-worded statements.

In the early days of the war, the foreign ministry expressed "deep concern" and condemned attacks on civilians by both sides.

Earlier this month, during an Arab-Islamic summit in Saudi Arabia, Morocco condemned Israel for "persevering in its blatant aggression against unarmed civilians" in Gaza.

Among the pro-Palestinian protesters on Morocco's streets, there have been mounting calls for the government to scrap the normalisation deal with Israel.

But analysts say such a move is unlikely given the huge diplomatic reward Rabat obtained from then US president Donald Trump in return for signing the deal.

'Delicate situation'

Trump gave US recognition to Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony whose status has been disputed with the pro-independence Polisario Front for decades.

"Morocco is in a very delicate situation," Abouddahab said.

On the one hand, there was "a profound desire to maintain a win-win relationship" with Israel and, on the other, "the pressure of the street".

Abouddahab said Morocco was unlikely to order the closure of the Israeli liaison as it did following the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising more than two decades ago.

Morocco "will maintain the relationship but slow down the pace of meetings and visits," he said.

Morocco-Israel relations specialist, Jamal Amiar, said public support for the normalisation deal inside Morocco was decreasing.

It stood at just 31 percent last year, according to a poll published by Arab Barometer, and is likely to have fallen much lower since the Gaza war erupted last month, Amiar said.

But he said he expected the government to stand by the agreement regardless, because the alternative was a "diplomatic mess" with the United States and the potential loss of the "huge prize" it had secured in Western Sahara.

*This story was edited by Ahram Online

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