Last month Israeli and Moroccan soldiers participated together for the first time in the annual African Lion military exercise. (Israel Ministry of Defense)
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi visited Morocco this week in a historic step that cements the renewal of ties established between Morocco and Israel in December 2020, a relationship that could end up being one of the main fruits of the Abraham Accords.
Kohavi's visit began Monday and will continue for three days, marking the first time that Israel's top military officer has visited the country.
In many ways, the Morocco-Israel story is one that sometimes appears to come second to reports of Israel and Saudi Arabia sharing interests, or the new ties with the Gulf.
The reason that the Morocco-Israel relationship gets less coverage and focus, despite it being a very warm relationship that also has deep historic roots, is partly due to Morocco being seen as sitting on the periphery of the Middle East and Islamic world.
That is true geographically: Israel's ties to Morocco, like Senegal, are geographically far from the center. But that is not a reason to discount or underestimate them. Israel and Morocco have had some form of informal ties for decades, and hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews have origins in Morocco, making it culturally one of the countries closest to Israel.
Morocco is an important country, especially in relation to North Africa and also ties with Spain, France, and other countries in the Mediterranean. Algeria, a neighbor of Morocco, is one of the most hostile countries to Israel in the region.
Tunisia and Israel have more potential for ties, whereas Libya is still in the grip of a civil war. Israel-Egypt ties appear to be flourishing. As such, Morocco is important in terms of geopolitics and for a number of other reasons. Morocco is an important country in western Africa, and a gateway to Europe.
This also puts it in focus in some disputes, such as the Western Sahara issue, and migration. On another level, Morocco has also been close to the US historically, as a partner country and stable country.
Considering the strategic importance of Morocco, due to where it is situated, its historic ties to the US; and its historic ties to the Muslim world as well as the Jewish community; Israel-Morocco ties are already clearly of great importance. However, when it comes to pressing issues such as the Iranian threat, Morocco does not seem to hold the same level of focus as Israel's work with US Central Command and also the Gulf states. That means that when we look at the recent US Presidential visit or the recent US Central Command meetings with Israel, the focus is the more immediate neighborhood.
Nevertheless, it is worth reviewing some of the high-level visits and ties that have emerged since December 2020.These visits illustrate how Israel and Morocco are rushing to build on their public relationship.
High-level Israel-Morocco Visits
Recent developing ties include several important steps. There was the Moroccan participation in an exercise alongside eight countries that also included Israel's Lotar counter-terrorism school.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz (right) shakes hands with his Moroccan counterpart Abdellatif Loudiyi after signing a memorandum of understanding in Rabat on November 24, 2021.
There was the November 2021 signing of an MOU as part of Defense Minister Benny Gantz traveling to Morocco. By March, Israel and Morocco had established direct public military ties through the visit of the head of the strategic planning and cooperation directorate.
In June, there was a visit by a Royal Moroccan Armed Forces representative to Israel, and Israel participated in the African Lion exercise in June as well.
African Lion 2022 included the head of the Middle East and North Africa Division of the Policy and Political-Military Bureau in the Israel Defense Ministry, who Israel says also serves as the defense attaché to Morocco, as well as two IDF officers who went to view the drill.
"The 'African Lion 2022' exercise, led by the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces (FAR), is the largest annual exercise held by both armies in Africa," Israel noted at the time.
The Defense Ministry said "Israel's participation in the [Africa Lion] exercise is an additional step in strengthening the security relations between the two countries' defense ministries and militaries. In addition, it constitutes a continuation of the FAR's Counterterrorism Unit's participation in the multinational exercise, which was held in Israel last year."
It should be noted also that Morocco is part of the Negev Summit committee. The most recent meeting of that group was in late June as well. That group includes Israel, Bahrain, the US, the UAE, Egypt, and Morocco.
When Gantz hosted an Iftar dinner in April, the event included the Abraham Accords countries representatives, including Ambassador of the Kingdom of Morocco Abderrahim Bayoud.
"I have been communicating with the leaders of your countries," Gantz said. "Israel values freedom of worship, and we will do everything in our capacity to enable it, while an extremist group – the minority – aims to harm it. It is important for us that this message is brought to the leaders of your countries. You are aware of the reality on the ground, and it is important to reflect it to the leaders of your countries."
Moroccan Ties Also Look to Be Good News for Defense and Trade
Globes reported in February that "Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) will provide the Moroccan army with the Barak MX air and missile defense system in a deal worth more than $500 million, according to international sources involved in the defense system trade."
According to the same report, "Morocco has already purchased Heron UAVs from IAI and other UAVs from IAI unit Bluebird, as well as robot patrol vehicle systems from Elbit Systems and drone interceptors from Skylock. All these purchases from Israeli companies were carried out through third parties."
Gantz has said that Israeli defense trade with the Abraham Accords countries is in the billions of dollars. Morocco appears to be a key to that large amount of trade.
The number of tourists is also growing. The Economist reported in June that Morocco expected 200,000 Israeli tourists. The tourism industry is backed by ads that have appeared in Jerusalem and aboard flights.
In June, Israel's Foreign Ministry also said that "the gead of the Foreign Ministry's Political Strategic Division, Ambassador Alon Bar, is currently holding a working visit to Morocco, during which he will hold a political dialogue with his Moroccan counterpart and meet with the director-general of the Moroccan Foreign Ministry, Fouad Yazur."
The report noted that "the head of the Middle East Division at the Moroccan Foreign Ministry, Fouad Ahraf, led the political dialogue on the Moroccan side. The goal of the dialogue was to discuss the ways in which bilateral cooperation can be deepened between the two countries, with an emphasis placed on bringing Moroccan workers to Israel, encouraging investment and mutual tourism, and encouraging trade between the two countries."
The overall context of Israel-Morocco ties, from defense to tourism, culture and diplomatic relations, appears to be one of the major fruits of the Abraham Accords. So far, it also appears to lack the controversy and complexity that can erupt in the Gulf due to the Iranian issue.
That does not mean it is not without its hurdles.
The issue of Western Sahara has ruffled feathers. US President Donald Trump moved to recognize the disputed area as part of Morocco.
That did not go well with everyone in Washington. However, the website Morocco World News said in March that for "lobbyists still hoping that the Biden administration will at some point repudiate the US' pro-Morocco policy on the Western Sahara dispute, the US Consolidated Appropriations Bill signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 15 is the latest indication that the recognition of Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara is now official US policy."
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.