Israel media review

Down the Rabat hole: What the press is saying on December 11

Ties with Morocco are back, as journalists try to navigate Trumpworld’s Mideast bazaar to figure out what was just bought and what else might be for sale

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

1. Let’s Moroccan roll: The US-brokered agreement for Morocco to resume and expand ties with Israel has unsurprisingly led the press landscape since being announced Thursday night. After four such deals in four months, everyone pretty much knows their places and the stages of acceptance: Excitement, followed by reports of how it came together, with a quick jump into speculation over who may be next, after which come questions about what each side is actually getting and who is getting screwed over.

  • As expected the tabloid press is the most gung-ho about the deal. “Shalom Morocco,” reads the top headlines on both Yedioth Ahronoth and Israel Hayom’s print editions Friday morning, with the former terming it “another historic deal.”
  • “In the annals of the [US President Donald] Trump administration, the deals between Israel and Arab states will shine as rare lights of success… The energy that [Senior Adviser] Jared Kushner has put into cobbling together deals that allow another breakthrough and another deal begs appreciation. The contrast with the way the administration has failed to deal with the coronavirus pandemic could not be starker,” writes columnist Shimrit Meir in Yedioth.
  • Israel Hayom, meanwhile, features yet another column with a headline claiming that Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “are overturning the Middle East,” though only one of them is truly worthy of praise. “The one who has led with great success peace processes and war campaigns, the battle against the coronavirus and battles of survival against the foxes and jackals undermining political stability is one man: It’s Prime Minister Netanyahu,” Amnon Lord writes, making clear that this may be about more than just peace.
  • Several reports note that while Israel and the US pumped the deal as the creation of full ties, Rabat has made it clear that the exchange of embassies is not in the cards just yet.
  • Lior Ben Dor, who heads the Foreign Ministry’s North Africa desk, tells Army Radio that he thinks Israel and Morocco will push ahead with the deal and move toward quick establishment of full diplomatic ties no matter who is in the White House. “We already have a lot of cooperation with Morocco, but to give it official weight will bolster the ties. There’s a lot of potential here,” he says.

2: Liquidation sale: It did not take long for some to begin looking at the deal a bit askance and start trying to look for who benefits and where the money is.

  • First and foremost is the recognition of Western Sahara as a part of Morocco, which gets little attention in the Israeli press except as a sideshow.
  • In Haaretz, Noa Landau calls it an “occupation for occupation deal”: “Official recognition of Israeli annexation is out, but Moroccan annexation is endorsed.”
  • “It’s not that previous administrations didn’t want to expand the covert peace between Morocco and Israel and bring it out of the closet. They simply didn’t want to pay the high price Trump shelled out for it without the blink of an eye,” she adds. “[O]nce again we see there are no free lunches. Only this time, it isn’t only the Israelis, the Palestinians and the United States who are paying a price, but another nation in the Sahara.”
  • But wait, there’s more. Army Radio’s Jacky Hugi reports that the UAE was involved in the deal behind the scenes, “seemingly giving money to Morocco.” He calls the gets for Morocco “a historic achievement for King Muhammed VI.”
  • David Halbfinger of The New York Times has some more details too, involving some interesting connections.
  • While the Western Sahara aspect of the deal was no secret as a quid pro quo, Israeli journalists also took notice of a Reuters report that came out within hours of the deal-breaking that the US wants to sell four ultra-advanced MQ-9B drones, which happen to be the same type being sold to the UAE after their “peace deal” with Israel.
  • Channel 13 news reports on the drones, but points out that it’s not clear at all that the arms deal has anything to do with Israel normalization.
  • Speaking to Kan, Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen denies that the deal with Morocco is an “arms deal,” at least in its talks with Israel.
  • But in The New York Times, Ronen Bergman points out that the countries have a long history of working together on weapons and spying: “Israel has helped Morocco obtain weapons and intelligence-gathering gear and learn how to use them, and helped it assassinate an opposition leader. Morocco has helped Israel take in Moroccan Jews, mount an operation against Osama bin Laden — and even spy on other Arab countries.”
  • Some, meanwhile, fret over poor Bahrain, which seemingly forgot to drive a hard bargain.

3. Still Makhlouf from the mellah: Unlike the other normalization deals, the one with Morocco holds extra meaning for many in Israel, with a large and thriving community of Moroccan immigrants and descendants, many of whom still travel there regularly.

  • “As opposed to Egypt and Jordan, which signed peace treaties with Israel decades ago, and in contrast to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, three Arab nations that normalized relations with Israel this year, Morocco and Israel have a profound and ancient Jewish connection, and the Moroccan Jewish community, though small, still thrives today,” writes Raphael Ahren in ToI.
  • “While Israeli tourists have begun discovering the Gulf only very recently, they have been flocking to Rabat, Marrakech, Casablanca, Tangiers and Fez via third countries for many years. Once the two countries establish diplomatic relations and open direct air-links, that number can be expected to increase dramatically,” he adds.
  • Israel prize winner Miriam Peretz writes in Yedioth that she left Morocco as a little girl, but still has a warm connection to the place, terming Thursday’s announcement “the realization of a dream,” and “a miracle.”
  • “When we left Morocco, my parents told me our Arab neighbors were very sad and said ‘the day the Jews leave Morocco, the blessing leaves Morocco.’ The sadness was real. From the mella [Jewish historic quarter] I brought with me the faith that we can live together even if we are different, I brought the joy of simplicity, the warmth,” she writes.
  • Former foreign minister David Levy, also of Moroccan descent, tells Kan that he has less pleasant memories of leaving Morocco, calling it dangerous and subversive, but he was happy to return on the first official trip in 1999.
  • “I was sure it would happen … Morocco is where we had our first peace talks with the Arab world. About 15 years ago [sic], in the first official state visit there with the Israeli flag, I was invited by the young king, the meeting was very warm. There’s something symbolic in the fact that I knew three generations of kings.”
  • Those bittersweet relations seemingly remain today among the few thousand Jews still there. Einat Levy of the Mitvim Institute tells Army Radio that “the Jewish community in Morocco took the news happily, but there are also fears. Right now, there are celebrations, it’s something they wanted.”

4. Play it again, Don: Speculation is now rampant that another country is on the way, and most of it revolves, as always, around the big dog of Saudi Arabia.

  • That speculation is helped along by Kushner telling a press conference that open ties between Riyadh and Jerusalem are “inevitable.”
  • Kan reports that another deal is expected to be announced within days, according to an Israeli source. It also cites an American source saying that talks are continuing to reach a deal before Trump leaves office.
  • An Israeli diplomatic source tells Channel 12 that Jerusalem is in normalization talks with Muslim states in both Africa and Asia.
  • Channel 12’s Ehud Yaari points out no country is as close to Saudi Arabia as Morocco is, noting that Saudi princes have large palaces in Morocco and some are married to local women: “Morocco’s step should make it easier for the Saudis to make a similar move.”
  • Israel Hayom’s Daniel Siryoti notes that Saudi-owned Arab News played up the Israel Morocco deal on their front page Friday. “According to officials in Riyadh, the Saudi position on the prospect of normalization with Israel has changed in recent weeks. This change is linked to the close relations between Rabat and Riyadh, hence the possibility of the Saudi monarchy making a similar move with Israel in the near future,” he says.
  • In Haaretz, which sent an unfortunately timed push notification Thursday morning saying normalization with Morocco was not necessarily near, Zvi Bar’el writes that Riyadh isn’t so easily bought off as its Arab brethren.
  • “Saudi Arabia is no holier than the UAE, Jordan or Morocco, but it has a complicated score to settle with the United States, which doesn’t depend only on Trump’s whims or on Israel’s influence,” he writes.
  • One thing reporters in Israel have learned in recent years is that it’s a good idea to follow the jet planes, and none may be better than Haaretz’s Avi Scharf, who flagged planes between Israel and Morocco months ago. On Friday, he finds another interesting flight, this one from Qatar.
  • Walla and Axios’s Barak Ravid, who reported on the talks with Morocco months before even Scharf’s plane tweet, doesn’t add to the conversation on who may be next, but he does know who might. Ravid notes that on Thursday the Foreign Ministry held a special event to honor the Israeli diplomats working in secret around the Gulf, many of whom are now able to come out into the open: “At the head of those getting thanks was the legendary diplomat Bruce Kashdan, the architect of the ties between Israel and the Gulf. They deserve a big thanks.”

5. Mr. insecurity: Ravid and others also report that Netanyahu once again tried to keep Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Benny Gantz out of the loop, though this time the White House foiled his plans.

  • “While the White House coordinated mainly with Netanyahu’s close confidantes — ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer and national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat — it did give a heads-up to both Gantz and Ashkenazi,” he reports for Axios, citing a US official.
  • The move is usually seen as an attempt to keep the credit for Netanyahu (though as usual, Trump holds the right of Prima Tweeta — the first tweet). However, Eli Cohen, the intelligence minister, tells Kan that the reason Netanyahu didn’t want his foreign and defense minister to know was because of fears they would leak the info and sink the deal, which had nearly come together several times before falling apart at the last moment. (The oft-used excuse seemingly holds little water given that the two were updated on matters by the White House, a fact that Ashkenazi’s spokesperson has confirmed.)
  • Netanyahu “has prevented [Gantz and Ashkenazi] from visiting these new destinations, and is scrupulous in making sure that it’s clear that normalization is only his. Vaccines he also won’t let them get near,” writes Walla’s Tal Shalev.
  • But with a newfound challenge in the form of Gideon Sa’ar, she says that “Mr. vaccines is going to need more than normalization to stay in power,” noting Sa’ar’s strong polling numbers.
  • Sima Kadmon in Yedioth also sees normalization through a domestic political lens. “Sa’ar’s bombshell this week was a major event. Fine, maybe not as big as the arrival of the vaccines or the deal coming together with Morocco, two things that Netanyahu has tried to get good mileage of in the hopes it will boost him in the election,” she writes.
  • “A new toy is in town and who knows how to play with it like Netanyahu,” she adds, referring to the Rabat deal. “But Sa’ar’s defection from Likud and creation of a new party is still a temblor, which can change the face of the political system.”
  • While most polls have given Sa’ar 15-18 seats, one published in Israel Hayom Friday morning pushes it up to a whopping 20, though Likud is also boosted, garnering 28 seats. The big loser in their survey is Yamina, which drops all the way down to 12 seats.
  • “Even if projections prove true with regard to the performance of Sa’ar’s party in the polls, he will find it difficult to form a coalition without Likud,” writes the paper’s Mati Tuchfeld. “His party, joined by Yamina, Yesh Atid, Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu still only reaches 57 Knesset seats – four short of the 61 mandates needed to form a government. To secure them Sa’ar would have to reach out to Meretz and the chances of such a complex alliance to prosper depends only on how motivated its members are to unseat Netanyahu.”
  • Haaretz’s Yossi Verter has not forgotten about former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, who may be the next person to shake up the political scene, and whom he sees going pretty much anywhere. There’s little regard for what that means about his ideology, or lack thereof, which sounds kind of like another former IDF chief, but unlike Gantz, Verter doesn’t think Eisenkot will try to go it alone.
  • “One fact is pretty much inarguable,” he writes. “Eisenkot is a classic second fiddle. He wouldn’t be for [Moshe] Ya’alon, not only because of the latter’s poor electoral prospects but also because two former chiefs of staff cancel each other out. Rather, he can play second fiddle to any civilian, be he Sa’ar, Lapid, Liberman or Bennett. His synergetic usefulness beside any one of them is immeasurably more effective than in any constellation with other top brass.”
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