Israel should induce a regional agenda for Israel-Morocco ties – Opinion
The visit to Morocco by Foreign Minister Lapid, like his June visit to the UAE, attests to the importance the new government attributes to advancing Israel’s relationships in the Middle East, especially with the “normalization” states. The government’s efforts in this regard are focused on introducing tangible and diverse substance into bilateral relations with these countries and on forging similar ties with additional Muslim states.
However, beyond the bilateral aspect, Israel’s enhanced ties with key Arab states present it with new and significant regional opportunities. Israel lies at the crossroad of the Middle East, Europe and the Mediterranean. These regions are strongly linked, and each provides Israel with options for integration and belonging.
Israel, which grew accustomed over decades to a sense of regional isolation, has yet to adapt to its changing geopolitical circumstances and has not set clear policy goals for its desired regional affiliation. Public opinion polls of recent years indicate that Israelis, too, are confused on this matter and are almost evenly split among those who view Israel as part of Europe, the Middle East or the Mediterranean.
The 2020 normalization with Arab states, Morocco among them, provides Israel with a new opportunity – multiregional connectivity. Not just leveraging ties with a certain Arab state for the sake of advancing relations with one specific region, but also utilizing Israel’s growing scope of diplomatic ties to create cross-regional cooperation. This is a new horizon for Israel’s foreign policy.
For example, the establishment of formal relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates eased the Emirates’ entry into the Eastern Mediterranean and enabled their integration into the array of strategic ties Israel maintains with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. The April 2021 quadruple meeting in Cyprus that brought together the foreign ministers of Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the UAE is a distinct example of this new horizon, as is the Emirati attempt (unsuccessful so far) to join the Cairo-based Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum as an observer.
Such opportunities will avail themselves regarding Morocco, too, as Israel-Morocco ties develop and deepen. Israel’s relations with Morocco have a much longer history of positive interactions, compared to Israel’s ties with the UAE. Israel and Morocco share decades of behind-the-scenes strategic cooperation, years of formal and open diplomatic relations, and an uninterrupted link between their people based on shared roots and heritage, culture and tourism, which has generated economic and civilian cooperation.
Lapid’s primary goal should be to strengthen and upgrade these bilateral relations into full ambassadorial-level diplomatic relations (right now the mutual diplomatic representations are defined as liaison offices). An emphasis on the regional and multi-regional opportunities offered by improved Israel-Morocco relations could smooth Lapid’s path to that goal and inject new substance into the developing ties.
The July decision by the African Union to accept Israel as an observer was an initial realization of such opportunities. Morocco, which rejoined the African Union in 2017 after an absence of more than 30 years, was among the opponents to Israel’s affiliation with the organization in recent years. This time, it was noticeably absent from the opponents’ ranks and presumably gave its blessing to the move behind the scenes.
Israel’s standing in the Mediterranean is also likely to benefit from improved ties with Morocco. The Mediterranean is becoming increasingly key to Israeli diplomacy in recent years, largely its eastern part. Ties with Morocco can forge new connections between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean, and open up opportunities for Israel and Morocco to cooperate and make a larger regional impact. This, for example, could be done through the Union of the Mediterranean (UfM), of which both Israel and Morocco are members. Morocco plays a key role in the organization, while Israel as downgraded its involvement there in recent years. The re-appointment of an Israeli representative to a senior position in the UfM secretariat, a position to which Israel is entitled, would help realize the potential that lies in this channel.
And there is also a European aspect. Israel and Morocco are both part of the EU’s “southern neighborhood,” enjoying close relations with Brussels in a variety of fields despite political disagreements. This allows Israelis and Moroccans to work together with European colleagues within frameworks and programs run by the EU – such as the Horizon research and innovation program. Moreover, the EU’s updated agenda for the Mediterranean explicitly mentions the normalization between Israel and Arab states and expresses readiness “to explore further regional, sub-regional or trilateral cooperation and joint initiatives” with these countries. This provides a significant opportunity for Israel and Morocco to realize jointly.
And finally, upgraded relations between Israel and Morocco could also have a beneficial effect on Israel’s standing in the Middle East. Morocco, which deeply cares about the Palestinian issue and heads the committee on Jerusalem of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation could play a moderating role in Israeli-Palestinian tensions over Jerusalem’s holy sites and can help advance and host back-channel dialogues between senior Israeli and Palestinian officials. Despite its tense relations with the UAE, Morocco could also be helpful in deepening Israel’s relations with Gulf states. For example, several days prior to Lapid’s visit, Morocco hosted a joint business forum with the UAE, and Israel could seek to include Israeli companies in Morocco-UAE economic cooperation.
Lapid would do well to present his Moroccan counterparts a regional agenda for Israel-Morocco relations, and to increase the number of Israeli diplomats serving in Rabat to facilitate its realization. Morocco views itself as a country that strives to advance stability and security in the regions around it. Adding a regional framing to bilateral ties could therefore contribute to additional upgrading of Israel-Morocco relations and yield substantive benefits for both Israeli and Moroccan foreign policy.
The writer is president and founder of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a lecturer on Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.