Israel and North Africa: Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind

Daniel Zisenwine writes about the relations between Israel and North Africa states. This article is part of "The New Normal? Arab States and Normalization with Israel".

American-Israeli delegation visit to Morocco, December 2020
American-Israeli delegation visit to Morocco, December 2020. U.S. Embassy Jerusalem, from Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0].

Israel’s ties with key North African countries (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) are unusual among Arab-Israeli relations. These countries were never openly in a state of war with Israel, but also not at peace with the Jewish state. At the time of Israel’s establishment, these countries were still subjected to colonial rule. After gaining independence, they were very much part of the Arab-Israeli conflict (e.g., Tunis housed PLO headquarters from 1982-1994, Morocco sent troops in 1973 to the Syrian Golan front), despite their significant geographic distance from the conflict’s epicenter. Over time, Morocco and Tunisia pursued ties with Israel, while Algeria remained hostile, viewing Israel as a relic of the region’s colonial past. Mauritania, located in Northwest Africa, is considered both a part of North Africa and West Africa’s Sahel region. It established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1999 (later suspending them), as part of a broader effort to improve its standing in the international commu­nity, and help address its significant socio-eco­nomic challenges.

Israel’s interest in relations with Morocco and Tuni­sia was initially motivated by concerns for the Jew­ish communities in these countries, and facilitating Jewish immigration to Israel. This was followed by broader regional interests rooted in its “Periphery Doctrine,” which sought to cultivate ties with coun­tries on the margins of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Morocco and Tunisia had their own reasons to culti­vate ties with Israel, ranging from internal security concerns in strengthening their regimes, to a later Moroccan interest in mediating between Israel and Arab countries (as it did between Egypt and Israel in 1977) and enhancing the kingdom’s regional diplomatic position. Tunisia’s moderate positions towards Israel in the early 1960s did not lead to cooperation with Israel. Morocco, on the other hand, intensified security ties with Israel, which supplied the kingdom with weapons, training, sur­veillance technology, and training for the Moroccan intelligence service. Israel also reportedly offered advice on rural development, and helped promote the sale of Moroccan cotton in European markets. This cooperation did not replace Morocco’s strong support for the Palestinian cause, but did indicate a tacit recognition of Israel’s existence. Beyond these official considerations, many Moroccan Muslims over the years harbored fond (if not always his­torically accurate) memories of their relations with former Jewish neighbors who had settled in Israel, and viewed possible relations with the Jewish state as a symbolic restoration of those ties.

After years of secret contacts, in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the Palestinians, Moroccan established low-level dip­lomatic relations with Israel in 1994, and Tunisia followed suit in 1996. The main raison d’etre of the diplomatic missions opened in each country was to advance trade and tourism, and promote cultural and economic exchanges. But the development of these of relations remained sluggish (with the exception of Israeli tourism), reflecting Morocco’s hesitancy in advancing them absent progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Moroccan Islamists and other groups, which fiercely opposed nor­malization, also affected Morocco’s unwillingness to proceed, although security contacts remained undisturbed. The Israeli flag, for example, did not fly on the exterior of the liaison office in Rabat. Efforts to establish direct flights between the coun­tries came to naught. An Israel cultural week orga­nized in 1996 faced harsh criticism and reduced attendance. Both Morocco and Tunisia severed these ties in 2000, following the outbreak of the second Intifada, but maintained varying degrees of unofficial contacts with Israel (Mauritania sev­ered its ties a bit later, in 2009). Indeed, since 2000 Morocco has demonstrated a form of “normaliza­tion without normalization,” which included allow­ing Israeli tourism, trade, and to a lesser degree diplomatic meetings and contacts. These discreet ties seemed to satisfy Morocco, which refrained from expanding them. Morocco did seek Israeli assistance in gaining American support of its rule over the disputed Western Sahara region, which eventually developed into the formula for nor­malization with Israel. Tunisia’s engagement with Israel was more modest, limited mostly to accept­ing Israeli tourists, and effectively ceased after the Tunisian revolution in 2011. All of these features and historical background underscore the unique infrastructure of North African relations with Israel, and affect the prospects for future developments.

Over the past two months, Israeli-North African relations have witnessed dramatic developments. The most significant is the December 10, 2020 announcement regarding the renewal of Israel and Morocco’s low-level diplomatic ties, a move facili­tated by the United States and the outgoing Trump administration. Morocco’s decision was part of a broader diplomatic breakthrough for the kingdom, which received American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara region in exchange for renewing its ties with Israel. For Morocco, this was the key motivating factor of this decision, as evident in the Moroccan official announcement, which extensively outlined the American recognition and only then proceeded to discuss the resumption of ties with Israel. Therein lies the main challenge of this agreement. Rabat’s apparent linkage of its relations with Israel to the broader Western Sahara issue could potentially affect the scope and pace of expanding these ties (which will be dependent on continued U.S. com­mitment to the Moroccan position), and could also indirectly generate renewed conflict in the West­ern Sahara region. Morocco has emphasized that the renewal of ties with Israel was not akin to the “Abraham Accords” between Israel, the U.A.E. and Bahrain. Although the December announcement raised the prospect of upgrading Moroccan-Israeli relations, Moroccan officials have not indicated that they are in any rush to do so. Moreover, the resumption of formal ties has elicited criticism from opposition groups in Morocco, and placed the current Islamist-led government in a delicate position. Morocco’s king Mohamed VI has been in touch with Palestinian leaders, reiterating his com­mitment to the Palestinian cause and the two-state solution. Morocco seems to be clearly indicating that it intends to proceed very cautiously in man­aging its relations with Israel, and be attentive to the Palestinian issue.

Regarding the nature of the bilateral relations, Morocco has so far officially made progress. The Moroccan monarch held a telephone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu (who invited him to visit Israel), an official Israeli delegation flew to Rabat to formalize the agreement, liaison offices were reopened, and Moroccan officials, particularly from the tourist sector, have spoken enthusiasti­cally about advancing relations and welcoming a large number of Israeli tourists to the kingdom. One measure that does go beyond the scope of earlier bilateral ties is an aviation agreement signed between the two countries, which facilitates direct flights between them: this is a slight evolution of existing ties, which have allowed thousands of Israeli tourists to visit Morocco via Europe. Other realms of potential cooperation include agricultural technology and irrigation, health and medical proj­ects, and educational initiatives. For Morocco, the main challenge underpinning these relations will be the transition from the “normalization without normalization” platform to a more formal, estab­lished bilateral framework. Criticism of relations with Israel has been voiced across the Moroccan political spectrum, from human rights groups to Islamist political circles. While it is unlikely that in the current Moroccan political climate anyone will openly challenge the king’s decision to renew ties, opposition to relations with Israel remains potent. The linkage to the Western Sahara issue, the sensi­tivity to public opinion, and the Palestinian cause will likely dictate a sluggish pace to developments in the near future.

Prospects for other North African countries’ pur­suing with Israel remain dim. Neither Tunisia or Algeria have indicated interest in normalization. In 2018, the Tunisian parliament discussed a legisla­tive initiative that would have criminalized ties with Israel, which was not endorsed by the late presi­dent Essesbi, but indicated widespread opposition. Tunisia’s president Kais Saied has been a staunch opponent of normalization, asserting that ties with Israel were “national treason,” and the Tunisian prime minister asserted that relations with Israel were not on the country’s agenda.8 The recent Moroccan-Israeli agreement is a further compli­cating factor for the other North African countries. This is certainly the case for Algeria, which opposes Morocco’s Western Sahara claims and now has even more reasons to reject relations with Israel, after accusing the Moroccan-Israeli agreement of fulfilling “the Zionist entity’s desire to come close to our borders”.

Mauritania has also been recently mentioned by former Trump administration officials as a country they were in touch with about restoring its previ­ous ties with Israel. As a recipient of substantial economic aid from the U.A.E., it could potentially follow in the Emiratis’ footsteps. The prospects for this have generated substantial opposition in Mauritania, ranging from religious injunctions issued by some 200 Imams prohibiting relations with Israel, to a joint statement issued by members of parliament from several political parties calling for legislation that would criminalize normalization with Israel. Much of this has to do with internal Mauritanian politics, and the extent of President El-Ghazouani’s willingness to cope with significant Islamist opposition, should he decide to pursue relations with Israel.

The coming months will indicate the direction and velocity of North African-Israeli relations, as a new American administration takes office and both examines the diplomatic concessions made by its predecessor, and calibrates the effort it plans to invest in preserving and further encouraging the normalization effort.

This article is part of The New Normal? Arab States and Normalization with Israel.

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