Abdel Moneim Ali
Since the normalization of Israeli-Moroccan relations was approved in December 2020 within the framework of the Abraham Accords, adopted by the United States to give Israel political and diplomatic legitimacy in its Arab and Gulf scope as well as its African depth, there has been a striking improvement in the relationship between Rabat and Tel Aviv. Israel’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara on 17 July and its support for Rabat’s 2007 Western Sahara Autonomy Proposal are examples of the improvement in ties between the two countries.
This development, which was made possible by the decision to resume and normalize relations between Morocco and Israel, emphasizes the development of Israel-Morocco relations into a strategic partnership, particularly in light of the advancements made in numerous economic, military, and security fields.
Ties between Morocco and Israel have improved on both the economic and military fronts since the announcement of the resumption of relations between the two countries. Israeli recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Algerian-Moroccan geostrategic conflict area recently resulted in furthering bilateral ties.
Following a cursory review of the bilateral files, it is possible to observe the significant acceleration of the expansion of the two countries’ economic and military ties, which can be detailed as follows:
- Soft Growth and Economic Collaboration: Trade and economic cooperation laid the groundwork for bilateral relations between Morocco and Israel. The two countries signed an agreement on economic cooperation in February 2022, and as a result, the volume of trade increased by roughly four times in less than a year, reaching a value of about $500 million. Beyond that, Israel is working to maximize its strategic advantages with Morocco in the energy sector, where its priorities for cooperation in this respect are the gas and renewable energy sectors. In this regard, a memorandum of understanding was signed by the Moroccan National Office of Hydrocarbons and Mines (ONHYM) and the Israeli Ratio Petroleum to conduct gas exploration in the city of Dakhla beginning in early October 2021. Following that, the Israeli firms NewMed Energy and Adarco Energy and the Moroccan Ministry of Energy Transition and Sustainable Development signed a memorandum of cooperation, which covered exploration and gas production operations in the Boujdour Province in Western Sahara.
In addition, Israel plans to use its expertise and capabilities in agricultural technology to develop the agricultural sector in the southern regions of Morocco. This have been demonstrated by the Israeli company Netafim, which manufactures irrigation and agricultural equipment, opening a branch in the Moroccan city of Kenitra in March 2023. This step was preceded by Mehadrin’s announcement, an Israeli agricultural company, that it would invest $9 million in avocado farming in August 2021.
- Significant Shift in Military Interactions: The thawing of relations between Morocco and Israel was not triggered solely by the economy. There was a qualitative shift and an unprecedented development in the military field between Rabat and Tel Aviv, as evidenced by three indicators: the signing of a memorandum of understanding for security and military coordination in November 2021 served as the first of these indicators, whereas reciprocal military visits served as the second indicator. The signing of the memorandum of understanding inaugurated a new phase of military cooperation between the two countries, manifested in the exchange of military visits. In this regard, the Inspector General of the Moroccan Armed Forces, Belkhir El Farouk, attended the International Operational Innovation Conference hosted by Israel on 12 September. This was followed by a series of reciprocal visits, including one from Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces Aviv Kochavi to Morocco in July 2023, which was preceded by a visit by the Royal Moroccan Artillery Inspector, Mohamed Benawali, to Israel in mid-February, not to mention the two countries’ engaging in joint military exercises, most notably the Golani Brigade’s participation in the 2023 African Lion Exercise, which took place in Morocco, which was preceded by Tel Aviv’s hosting of a Moroccan commando unit for a multinational exercise in July 2021, as well as arms deals for drones and air defense systems. The third indicator was the mid-July 2023 appointment of Brigadier General Sharon Etah as a military attaché to Morocco, which was a clear sign that security and military relations between the two countries are being given priority and that their level of coordination had moved up to a strategic level.
The aforementioned areas of cooperation, which show how bilateral relations have evolved, are the outcome of various calculations made by the two parties.
According to Israeli calculations, establishing diplomatic relations with Arab and Gulf States and expanding into that geostrategic sphere is a marketing tool the government can use to lessen internal criticism and the recurrent political and economic crises. It can also serve as a catalyst for strengthening the Israeli presence, particularly in countries rich in natural resources, which reinforces Israel’s ambitions to benefit from these resources, not to mention the calculations related to Israel’s efforts to maximize the benefits of its normalization with some Gulf countries and Morocco as a gateway to the interior of Africa, which expands the scope of its economic, security, and military interactions.
Rabat’s calculations are driven by two main factors, the first of which is gaining a relative military edge over Algeria given their shared desire for regional hegemony. This is connected to its desire to become the first strategic ally of NATO in North Africa, the Sahel, and the Sahara and increase military prowess, consequently becoming the focal point of the West’s security and military coordination efforts in these regions. The second factor relates to the desire to make a significant advancement in the Western Sahara issue and to gain regional and international legitimacy in resolving that issue, first through political and diplomatic recognitions of Moroccan sovereignty in that region, and second, through military superiority, and perhaps resolving the issue militarily at a later stage by directing intense strikes against the Polisario Front’s concentrations to dismantle it and destroy its infrastructure. This can be accomplished through drone deals and the development of related-military technology via Israel.
Domestic and Regional Repercussions
The political and security developments between Morocco and Israel have created room for internal and regional criticism and discord.
At the national level, public opinion criticism of the Moroccan government, led by the Islamic Justice and Development Party (JDP), has increased, with advocates for the Palestinian cause exploiting public support. To address this issue, Rabat has consistently demonstrated that improving relations with Israel will not come at the expense of finding a just solution for the Palestinian cause. However, it will be challenging to strike a balance between Rabat’s commitments to the Palestinian cause and the partnership between Morocco and Israel given the escalating violence and Israel’s systematic settlement-building in the Palestinian territories.
Externally, Algeria and Morocco are growing further apart as a result of Morocco’s strengthening of its alliance with Israel, which compelled Algeria to strengthen its alliances and promote military openness with Iran, Russia, and China due to Algerian security concerns regarding Israel’s proximity to its border. This trend represents an accumulation of divergent policies between the two countries and precludes the possibility of taking any positive steps to return to the situation prior to 2021. Additionally, this makes room for regional rivalry between Iran and Israel in the Middle East.
In the midst of the field conflict, the Polisario Front intensified its operations against the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces, launching numerous assaults in early August to hit the trenches of a number of Moroccan forces’ concentrations in Jawza, with sporadic expansion of armed assaults in a number of other areas, including al-Mahbas, Akrara al-Farsik, Ross Laktetera, and Ross Dert.
In short, the official announcement of Israel’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara marks a new chapter in in the strategic relations between the two countries, particularly at the military and intelligence levels, which sparks a regional arms race, especially between Algeria and Morocco, the two poles of the Maghreb region, and causes unprecedented tension in the North African circle.