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First Israel-Morocco flight arrives in Rabat to seal normalization deal

Joint US-Israeli delegation makes historic whirlwind trip to sign bilateral deals, including on aviation, tourism, water and finance

A joint Israel-US delegation, led by Meir Ben-Shabbat (right) and Jared Kushner (center) is greeted on landing in Rabat, after the first direct flight between Israel and Morocco, December 22, 2020 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
A joint Israel-US delegation, led by Meir Ben-Shabbat (right) and Jared Kushner (center) is greeted on landing in Rabat, after the first direct flight between Israel and Morocco, December 22, 2020 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

The first ever commercial flight from Israel to Morocco took off on Tuesday morning for a whirlwind trip by a joint Israeli-American delegation that will include the signing of several bilateral agreements and a trilateral declaration.

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, who is leading the trip on the Israeli side, said these would include agreements on aviation, tourism, water, and other issues.

Ben-Shabbat, the son of Morocco-born parents, said peace is “breaking out before our eyes.” He made his remarks on the tarmac, in front of the plane, which was painted with a hamsa symbol, a hand image popular as a good luck symbol in both countries.

The flight from Tel Aviv to Rabat, which touched down in the Moroccan capital around 3 p.m. local time, is seen as highly symbolic after Morocco announced on December 10 a “resumption of relations” with Israel.

The national flags of Morocco, Israel and the United States on an El Al plane to Morocco flying a delegation to finalize a normalization deal between Jerusalem and Rabat, at Ben Gurion airport, near Tel Aviv, December 22, 2020. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The trip also aims to showcase the achievements of the Trump administration in Middle East diplomacy, weeks before US President Donald Trump is replaced at the White House by President-elect Joe Biden.

Jared Kushner, senior adviser to Trump, said he hoped the renewed ties between Israel and Morocco would create a relationship as warm as the one developing between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi, following a normalization agreement signed earlier this year.

Meir Ben-Shabbat (C) flanked by Jared Kushner (R) and David Friedman (L), speaks ahead of the departure of the first direct flight between Israel and Morocco, at Ben Gurion Airport, December 22, 2020 (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Since then, tens of thousands of Israelis have visited the United Arab Emirates and multiple cooperation deals have been signed by the two nations.

“My hope is that this flight today to Morocco will produce the same momentum,” Kushner said.

Kushner, who largely led Trump’s Middle East efforts, said the US president tried to create a “rational” policy based on common goals, apparently referring to business deals and shared concerns over the threat from Iran.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said that while each normalization agreement between Israel and an Arab country — three of which have been signed in the past four months, with a fourth country, Sudan, having indicated plans to soon do the same — was significant on its own, together they represented a major shift in the region.

“Each peace agreement stands on its own. Each is to be celebrated. Together they represent a sea change in the Middle East,” he said.

The delegation is scheduled to spend less than a day in Morocco, holding high-level meetings with Moroccan officials, including King Muhammad VI, before returning to Israel.

The delegation had been scheduled to stay in Morocco until Wednesday afternoon, but Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat said during a briefing Tuesday that it would leave overnight to arrive in Israel before a compulsory quarantine requirement at state-run facilities takes effect Wednesday afternoon.

Following the meeting with the king, the delegation will give statements to the press and sign bilateral agreements on aviation, finance, water and visas, according to Haiat.

Israelis officials will also hold working meetings with their Moroccan counterparts.

“This isn’t the same story like with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. We’re not starting here from zero,” Haiat said, noting Israel and Morocco’s establishment of low-level diplomatic ties in 1994.

Even after the closure of liaison offices Tel Aviv and Rabat following the outbreak of the Second Palestinian Intifada, Haiat said Israel continued to maintain ties with Morocco.

“The change right now is… this is a renewal of relations that is meant to lead to their upgrading,” he said.

Haiat said the liaison offices would reopen immediately and that embassies would be opened at an unspecified future date.

He highlighted the ties between Morocco’s Jewish community and Israelis of Moroccan descent, calling them a “cultural bridge” between the countries.

Haiat also predicted an increase in the 30,000-50,000 Israelis estimated to visit Morocco each year once direct commercial flights are launched and the COVID-19 pandemic abates.

Morocco became the third Arab state this year to normalize ties with Israel under US-brokered deals, and in return, the US president fulfilled a decades-old goal of Morocco by backing its contested sovereignty in Western Sahara.

The move infuriated the Algerian-backed pro-independence Polisario Front, which controls about one-fifth of the desert territory that was once a Spanish colony.

In this photo taken on November 24, 2020, a Moroccan army vehicle drives past car wreckages in Guerguerat in Western Sahara, after the intervention of the royal Moroccan armed forces in the area. (Fadel SENNA / AFP)

Negotiations leading to Morocco’s resumption of ties with Israel — Rabat closed its liaison office in Tel Aviv in 2000, at the start of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising — included the opening of a US consulate in Western Sahara, and US investments that Moroccan media described as “colossal.”

At the same time, Israel and Morocco are due to reopen diplomatic offices and activate economic cooperation between them.

Speaking at a Jerusalem ceremony alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, Kushner said normalization with Morocco “will bring about a whole new set of opportunities for northern Africa and the entire Middle East.”

“Our collective efforts have led to the birth of a new Middle East, where firsts and breakthroughs are now happening almost every day,” Kushner said.

Speaking after Kushner, Netanyahu lauded what he called a commercial “revolution” unleashed by the US-brokered normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE, which he promised would spread to Morocco.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference with US Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner in Jerusalem on December 21, 2020. (RONEN ZVULUN / X90084 / AFP)

“Everybody is busy embracing everyone else, and they’re busy doing business together,” he said of Israelis and Emiratis.

“And the same thing now is going to happen in Rabat and Casablanca; yes, Israelis have been there before, but with direct flights, it’s going to be a whole different thing.”

Critics say the normalization deals came at a steep price. The agreement with the UAE paved the way for the controversial US sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets to the Gulf country. Sudan was removed from the US list of terrorism sponsors, paving the way for much-needed US and international aid but dividing the Sudanese as they negotiate a fragile transition to democracy.

The agreement with Morocco deals a major setback to those in Western Sahara who have fought for independence and want a referendum on the territory’s future. The area, with a population estimated at 350,000 to 500,000, is believed to have considerable offshore oil deposits and mineral resources.

The accords have also contributed to the isolation and weakening of the Palestinians by eroding a longstanding Arab consensus that recognition of Israel should only be given in return for concessions in the peace process.

King Mohammed VI has said Morocco will remain an advocate for the Palestinians, but the Palestinians — like the Polisario — have cried foul and condemned the normalization announcement between Rabat and the Jewish state.

Morocco has sought to temper the anger by insisting that relations with Israel are not new.

In this September 15, 2020 file photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan pose for a photo on the Blue Room Balcony after signing the Abraham Accords during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Morocco is home to North Africa’s largest Jewish community, which has been there since ancient times and grew with the arrival of Jews expelled from Spain by Catholic kings from 1492.

It reached about 250,000 in the late 1940s, 10 percent of the national population, but many Jews left after the creation of Israel in 1948, many of them fleeing local hostilities directed at them over the establishment of the Jewish state.

About 3,000 Jews remain in Morocco, and the Casablanca community is one of the country’s most active.

Israel, meanwhile, is home to 700,000 Jews of Moroccan origin.

Although ties between the two countries were suspended in the year 2000, trade between Israel and Morocco was not. Between 2014 and 2017 the volume of trade exchanges stood at $149 million, according to statistics published by Moroccan newspapers.

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