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At the end of August, US diplomats were full of enthusiasm following the announcement of the normalisation of relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. Soon after, the US government announced that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Oman, Bahrain, Qatar Sudan and Israel.
Jared Kushner, son-in-law and advisor to US President Donald Trump, announced his plans to begin an Arab tour that will take him from Saudi Arabia to Morocco.
The stated objective of the visits is to encourage these countries to follow the Emirati lead and normalise their relations with the Hebrew State.
Washington hoped that the Moroccan kingdom would follow in the footsteps of the UAE. The hope stems from tangible elements. Among Arab countries, Morocco was a pioneer in opening discussions with Israel, for example when Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres visited Hassan II in 1986.
“Liaison offices” were then opened between the two countries in 1994, but relations were interrupted after the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000.
The kingdom’s position on the normalisation of relations with Israel is therefore under close scrutiny.
A few days after the signing of the agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, the Head of the Moroccan government, Saad Eddine El Othamni, made a point of declaring: “We refuse any normalisation with the Zionist entity because it encourages it to go further in violating the rights of the Palestinian people.”
He said he was speaking as the leader of the Justice and Development Party (PJD), not on behalf of his government.
The chairman of the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, Deputy Youssef Gharbi, said he did not interpret Jared Kushner’s announced trip as a precursor to the normalisation of Moroccan-Israeli relations: “Our two countries [Morocco and the United States] have long-standing relations. There are many issues to discuss between them. However, Morocco has its own line on the Palestinian cause, and commitments with the Arab League... We know that the US administration is now proposing a plan that is not in line with the views of the Moroccan state and the overwhelming majority of its citizens.”
The evoked “plan”, often referred to by Trump’s opponents as the “Deal of the Century”, was proposed by the American president with the aim of finding a definitive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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Officially presented in January 2020, it was perceived as largely unbalanced in favor of Israel by several member countries of the Arab League. Donald Trump’s son-in-law has already played the salesman of the “deal of the century” in Morocco, notably in May 2019, when he met the king. His wife, Ivanka Trump, officially visited the kingdom in November 2019, to support land and social reforms.
Back then the Moroccan diplomacy was careful not to express a final position, alternating between cautious remarks and kind statements.
After sweeping aside rumors of peace plan talks in June 2019 in the wake of Kushner’s visit, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said in January 2020 that: “The kingdom appreciates the peace efforts of the administration of US President Donald Trump.”
Several observers close to the Moroccan diplomatic spheres agree on a major point: there is indeed American pressure for Rabat to be more open to the peace plan. Samir Bennis, a political advisor in Washington, notes the activism of American media who “repeat unfounded allegations that Morocco wants to move towards normalisation.”
In December 2019, the King of Morocco cited an “incompatible agenda” to justify cancelling his meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was visiting Morocco. Was it a subtle way to make people understand that there are limits to pressure, even friendly pressure?
With shared views on Western Sahara, and a security partnership between the two countries, maintaining good relations with Washington counts in Rabat. Hence the precautions taken not to reject American initiatives too openly.
Course of action
But spontaneous moves from the tenant over in the White House don’t make things easy. His sudden decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jericho was hard to digest. The King of Morocco, wearing the hat of president of the Al-Quds Committee, reacted to this sudden decision to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2017 by writing, expressing: “A deep concern (…) about your administration’s intention to recognize Al-Quds as the capital of Israel…”.
Rabat moves through diplomatic circles by blowing hot and cold air. According to Edward Gabriel, a former US ambassador in Rabat and former lobbyist for Morocco in Washington, Rabat does not tout a direct line on the question of Israel.
But before any warming of relations with this country, the kingdom expects concessions: an Israeli willingness, for example, to recognise East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. But one problem with that: “Recent Israeli governments have adopted policies that run counter to Morocco’s positions,” says Samir Bennis.
Trade relations, although timid, do exist between the two countries. A simple search in the public data of the Israeli Center for Statistics is enough to ensure this. Classical areas of Israeli exports to Africa include new technologies and agricultural tools.
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In 2017, just over $30m worth of commercial products were exchanged between the two countries. Is there a tacit agreement between the two countries on the nature of this relationship? Already in 2018, a member of the Israeli diplomatic corps explained to JA/TAR that Tel Aviv is satisfied with these exchanges and is aware that it cannot expect a radical change of course from Morocco.
But American activism is pushing the Hebrew state to send more direct messages. The Israeli Foreign Ministry published a video in Arabic in January inviting Moroccan investors and evoking an “open door”.
But for the Moroccan government, the Palestinian question is not only a problem of foreign policy and bilateral relations. Demonstrations opposing the peace plan have already taken place in Rabat and rumors of a new visit by Kushner have prompted a coalition of nationalist, left-wing and Islamist unions and organisations to issue an appeal entitled “Palestine is not for sale.
“There is an awareness among Moroccan decision-makers of the emotional attachment of Moroccans to Palestine and this is a factor,” said Bennis.
Moreover, Morocco is not isolated in its refusal to advance without compensation towards normalisation with Israel. Its position is more or less in line with that of Riyadh. Between August and September, the Saudi monarchy drew the contours of its attitude: no normalisation before the creation of a Palestinian state.
“If Kushner had envisaged taking charge of the visits to Saudi Arabia and Morocco, it is because they are old friends who will not blindly follow the American line. So we’re sending a charming emissary to do soft diplomacy,” said a Moroccan consultant.
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