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Interview'A bridge to the Arab world'

Arriving in Morocco, Israeli envoy makes expanding ties his mission

Ambassador David Govrin anticipates low-level relationship with Rabat will reach full diplomatic heights — building on years of contacts, visits and a shared history

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israel's envoy to Morocco David Govrin (r) with David Toledano, head of the Jewish community in Rabat, January 2021 (Foreign Ministry)
Israel's envoy to Morocco David Govrin (r) with David Toledano, head of the Jewish community in Rabat, January 2021 (Foreign Ministry)

On December 10, then-White House adviser Jared Kushner told reporters that Morocco had agreed to establish “full diplomatic ties” with Israel. In fact, as Morocco’s King Mohammed VI made clear soon after, Rabat had agreed to re-establish a liason office with an eye toward expanding ties in the future.

Nearly two months later, Israel’s man in Rabat says he’s laying the groundwork for that anticipated deepening of government and civil ties, though the Moroccans appear to prefer taking the rekindled relationship slow.

“We are trying to expand our bilateral ties with the Moroccans in many different fields,” envoy David Govrin told The Times of Israel this week. “The potential is very high.”

Govrin is currently the head of Israel’s liaison office in Rabat, and is likely to become Israel’s ambassador should full diplomatic ties be established. In a December 2020 statement reestablishing ties, the countries agreed to immediately reopen liaison offices, while working to “resume official bilateral ties and diplomatic relations as soon as possible.”

“Israel would like to establish our full diplomatic relationship as soon as we can,” Govrin said, but the Moroccan government prefers a gradual process.

Israeli National Security Adviser speaks to the press at the royal palace in Rabat, Morocco, December 22, 2020. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

A Moroccan government spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. For now Rabat does not appear to be discussing full ties publicly, though the kingdom is eager to expand cooperation.

On Friday, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita and Israeli National Security Council chairman Meir Ben-Shabbat agreed by phone to establish “joint working groups” to promote cooperation between the two countries in a variety of areas, including investments, transportation, water, environment, energy and tourism.

And on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi spoke with Bourita — the first conversation between the two top diplomats — and “agreed to work together to rapidly implement the agreements between Morocco and Israel,” Ashkenazi said.

Israel and Morocco established low-level diplomatic relations during the 1990s following Israel’s interim peace accords with the Palestinians, but those ties were suspended after the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000. Nevertheless, informal ties continued, and Israelis could still travel to Morocco as part of organized tours. An estimated 50,000 Israelis travel to Morocco each year, learning about the Jewish community and retracing family histories.

King Hassan II of Morocco, right, with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, second from left, and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, left , at the Skhirat Royal Palace in Rabat, Morocco, September 14, 1993. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Govrin, who previously served as Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, said he believed those informal ties would help smooth the resumption of contacts between the countries.

“It is much easier than other Arab countries due to the fact that over the last two decades, we’ve had constant contacts with civil society in Morocco. Many representatives of different Moroccan organizations visited Israel,” he said. “The Jewish community here in Morocco played a significant role in connecting the two peoples. So we are not starting from scratch. We are continuing, we are expanding.”

Israel’s envoy to Morocco David Govrin in the mellah, or Jewish neighborhood, in Rabat, January 2021 (Foreign Ministry, courtesy)

The relationship is also aided by Israel’s massive community of Moroccan Jews, which numbers around 700,000, many of whom maintain a connection to the country. Today, some 3,000 Jews remain in Morocco, most of them in Casablanca.

Govrin spoke with visiting heads of Morocco’s Jewish community in person in Israel, and with others by phone, before he flew to Rabat.

He will be heading to Casablanca later this week to meet the Jewish community there.

“I intend to hear their concerns if there are any, and what are the prospects… We should be very attentive to their concerns,” he said.

While largely welcoming the resumption of ties, some Moroccan Jews expressed concerns following the December 10 announcement, fearing the reaction of Islamist elements in Morocco opposed to the normalization process.

Members of the Moroccan Jewish community pray at the synagogue of Em Habanim in the western city of Casablanca on January 5, 2021 (FADEL SENNA / AFP)

In 2013, for instance, leftists and Islamists demonstrated outside the Tangiers Film Festival against a documentary about Moroccan Jews living in Israel. They claimed it promoted “normalization” with Israel.

“I’m afraid that protests will break out, that a rift will be created between the communities, that misunderstandings will prevail,” a Moroccan Jewish woman told AFP shortly after the normalization deal.

When news of the agreement with Israel emerged in December 2020, Morocco’s main Islamist parties released statements calling the move “deplorable” and a betrayal of the Palestinian cause.

Moroccans burn an Israeli flag during a demonstration against US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, in the capital Rabat, on February 9, 2020. (Fadel Senna/AFP)

Govrin arrived in Morocco on January 25. Since he is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, he was not required to quarantine in Morocco.

Israel’s diplomats are currently operating out of a hotel in Rabat, and will be moving to rented offices soon. Israel still owns its shuttered liaison office in the capital, but sees it as unsuitable for its current needs.

“We are trying to establish the infrastructure for our activity,” said Govrin. Those efforts include finding office space, recruiting staff, and starting to meet with Moroccan officials, representatives of the Jewish community, and Moroccan businessmen.

The mission is currently working on bringing personnel from Israel and hiring Moroccans as local staff.

Govrin, who speaks Arabic and French, openly identifies as an Israeli diplomat in Morocco. “Why should I hide?” he asked. “I don’t have to hide. We went two days ago to a big mall… naturally, we were asked, ‘Where are you from?’ We were welcomed in a very warm way. The same in the hotel we are staying in. It’s really amazing, and it’s wonderful.”

People in the reopened Medina of Rabat after lockdown measures were lifted in Rabat, Morocco, Friday, June 26, 2020. (AP/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

Though COVID-19 restrictions have largely dampened international travel, Israel and Morocco are hoping to inaugurate direct flights between the countries in the next two months. Israeli diplomats are preparing for a dramatic rise in the number of Israeli tourists to Morocco.

He hopes that significant numbers of Moroccan tourists will visit Israel as well, and that the immigration officials at Ben Gurion Airport “will understand that the reality has changed, and that there is a difference between [Morocco and] Arab countries that Israel does not have full diplomatic relations with, those who are still considered to be our enemies or hostile.”

Airport immigration officials in the past have been accused of treating Arabs and critics of Israel with a surfeit of suspicion, in some cases detaining or deporting people for comments they may have made online years ago.

Govrin said that Israel must continue to establish ties across the Arab world, and must “look for our partners in each and every Arab country.”

“We see these missions as a bridge to the Arab world,” he said.

The national flags of Israel and Morocco are projected on the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, December 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Representing a country that gives prominence to military and security agencies, Govrin sees himself as participating in a campaign no less important for Israel’s security.

“I see myself as a soldier of peace,” Govrin said. “I think we should invest our effort as well as our time in this campaign for peace. It’s one thing to sign an official agreement; it’s another thing to implement it.”

“Implementing an agreement takes continuous effort and time,” he added. “You have to devote and use all your skills in order to open doors. It’s not easy.”

‘A historic week’

On top of Rabat, last week saw Israel open missions in Manama, Bahrain and both Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the UAE.

On Thursday, Foreign Minister Ashkenazi held a virtual summit with his top diplomats in those four locations, as well as embassies in Egypt and Jordan, calling the new openings part of a “historic week.”

“Opening the missions is a living testament to the changes occurring in the region and to change in Israel’s regional standing,” he said.

Israeli diplomats in Jerusalem teleconference with heads of missions in Arab countries on January 28, 2021. (Foreign Ministry)

He said he expected the momentum created over the previous six months to continue with new US President Joe Biden.

“The Biden administration is committed to the peace process and normalization in the Middle East, and it will continue operating to widen the circle and to bring other countries in,” Ashkenazi said.

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