Reporter's notebook

For Israeli delegation in Rabat, a muted ‘welcome back’ marks resumption of ties

Unlike the UAE and Bahrain, Morocco already had relations with Jerusalem once, a fact highlighted by a less effusive reception, despite the historic first flight to Morocco

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

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 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)

RABAT, Morocco — Israel’s renewed ties with the Kingdom of Morocco are substantively different from its normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and that distinction — being not so much a groundbreaking shift, but a shift back — was on clear display Tuesday, borne out by the decidedly subdued ceremony during a visit of a joint Israeli-American delegation to the Moroccan capital.

Though El Al flight 555 to Rabat was widely hailed as the first flight from Israel to Morocco — with sticky sweet Moroccan treats and face masks decorated with Israeli, American and Moroccan flags handed out on board to drive home the point — it was very far from the first time that Israelis have traveled to the North African kingdom.

Roughly 70,000 Israelis already make the trip each year, a Jewish Moroccan tour provider told The Times of Israel.

Nor was this the first time that Israel and Morocco have had formal relations. The two countries maintained low-level ties from 1975 to 2000, until Rabat called them off with the outbreak of the Second Intifada. The liaison offices — not embassies — that Israel and Morocco plan to open in the coming weeks in each other’s countries are in fact the same properties used during that period.

As a result, in the eyes of Morocco, the trilateral declaration that was signed on Tuesday night was not a monumental, historic shift, but something of a return to what once was — though there are clear, stated intentions by Morocco to develop these ties beyond what they were before, to full diplomatic relations with proper embassies and ambassadors.

A Moroccan Foreign Ministry official told reporters that Rabat does not consider the agreement part of the so-called Abraham Accords, the series of recent normalization deals between Israel and Arab or Muslim countries brokered by the United States.

An El Al flight attendant distributes Moroccan pastries on board the first ever flight from Israel to Morocco on December 22, 2020. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

This conflicts somewhat with the view of the United States. Jared Kushner, senior adviser and son-in-law to US President Donald Trump and chief architect of the current normalization push, referred to the renewed ties as a “peace agreement” in his speech Tuesday night.

But Israel does not seem to particularly mind how Rabat perceives the emerging relations between the two countries, only that they continue to develop.

For Israel and for Israelis — especially the hundreds of thousands of Israelis of Moroccan descent, including National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, who led the Israeli delegation to Rabat — these renewed ties are exciting, even if they do not represent a tectonic shift.

Though Israelis could already enter Morocco as part of organized tours before, now they will be able to travel individually and have an easier time getting visas. The path between the countries will be further smoothed by planned direct flights. The Jewish Moroccan tour provider said he expected the number of Israeli tourists to spike significantly in light of the renewed ties.

“If [the Morocco agreement] is in or out of the Abraham Accords, that’s an American issue. We don’t care,” an Israeli official told The Times of Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Rabat, meanwhile, appeared to want to make sure that the reception of the joint Israeli-US delegation was not too cold and not too warm.

The tombs of King Mohammed V and his sons King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah in the Mausoleum of Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco, on December 22, 2020. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

When the flight from Israel to Morocco touched down, no welcoming ceremony was held, Israeli and American flags didn’t fly over the tarmac and the only Moroccan officials to greet Kushner and Ben-Shabbat — the two leaders of the joint delegation — were relatively low-level ones. The meetings with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita and other senior officials would only come later.

Tea and fruit juices were served as members of the delegation waited for a nose or throat swabbing to test for the coronavirus, the closest thing there was to a welcoming party.

Contrast that with the landing of the first flight from Israel to the UAE in August, where a red carpet was literally laid out and the “Israeli visitors were all treated like honored guests,” as ToI’s Raphael Ahren described it at the time.

From the airport, in a police-escorted motorcade, the Israeli-American delegation traveled on to the stunning arabesque Mausoleum of Mohammed V, a national landmark where the eponymous king is entombed, alongside his sons, king Hassan II and prince Abdallah.

A uniformed soldier on a horse stands guard outside the Mausoleum of Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco, December 22, 2020. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

There too, Kushner and Ben-Shabbat, who placed wreaths on Mohammed V’s tomb, were not accompanied by any senior Moroccan officials, though they were guarded inside by two ceremonially uniformed soldiers on horseback (along with a less conspicuously dressed security detail).

The mausoleum, a white marble structure with a green roof in the Alaouite architectural style, is technically a mosque, requiring visitors to remove their shoes when they enter. All day a man sits inside the walls meticulously tiled in brilliant geometric bursts, reciting suras from the Quran.

Kushner, Ben-Shabbat and their teams then traveled on to the royal palace for high-level meetings with Moroccan officials. This included an hour-long meeting between Ben-Shabbat, Kushner, King Mohammed VI and a number of Moroccan officials, putting the apex of the diplomatic visit behind closed doors, like most other meetings. Other members of the Israeli delegation traveled to the Moroccan Foreign Ministry for talks there, while journalists were deposited in an empty conference room.

Workers arrive to disinfect the Mausoleum of Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco, on December 22, 2020. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

In the palace, still behind closed doors, Ben-Shabbat, Kushner and Bourita signed a trilateral declaration, calling for Morocco and Israel to formalize ties by the end of next month.

Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat (left), Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner (2nd left) and Moroccan King Mohammed VI (right) at the royal palace in Rabat, December 22, 2020 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Afterward, the three delivered prepared remarks on the marble steps outside the palace’s white plaster guest house. The three spoke warmly of each other and of the deep cultural and religious ties between Israel and Morocco.

“The relations with Morocco have special significance, beyond the diplomatic and economic aspects,” Ben-Shabbat said, speaking first in Arabic and then Hebrew.

A fountain in front of the guest house of Morocco’s royal palace in Rabat on December 22, 2020. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Inside the guesthouse — past the sitting room with ornate silver boxes of cigarettes and the hall with the massive brass chandelier — representatives of government ministries from the three countries signed six memoranda of understanding, including two that guaranteed massive American investment in Morocco and one to make it easier for Israeli diplomats to enter Morocco.

These agreements were not meant only to have practical value in and of themselves, but were also designed to keep the issue of the new bilateral ties between Israel and Morocco in the minds and on the calendars of officials in the two countries.

With the signing of the documents late Tuesday, the formal elements of the delegation to Rabat came to an end, though some talks between officials from the three countries continued through the night and into Wednesday.

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

For the the rank-and-file participants of the delegation, the historic trip ended with a four-hour wait in a hotel lobby, before heading back to Israel.

The visit was initially planned to last two days, but it was cut short in order to prevent the participants from having to quarantine for the full 10-day period required by Israeli law.

By keeping the trip to a single day and keeping the participants from interacting with anyone outside the group, the quarantine time was cut to 48 hours, contingent upon a negative coronavirus test.

In the end, the Israeli delegation spent roughly the same amount of time in the air, traveling to and from Morocco, as it did on the ground.

Israeli and Moroccan officials sign a bilateral agreement at the royal palace in Rabat, Morocco, December 22, 2020. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

While Flight 555 from Israel to Morocco was a historic first, the return trip, Flight 556, was a less exciting second. Then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin claimed the first such flight from Morocco to Israel achievement after a surprise visit there en route home from a trip to Washington, DC, in 1993.

And accordingly, the flight back — full of tired journalists and government officials most of whom had been awake for upwards of 22 hours — was decidedly low-key. The commemorative covers that were put on the seats for the first flight, with Israeli, Moroccan and American flags, the word “peace” in Hebrew, Arabic and English, and a golden hamsa, a hand shape considered good luck in Israel and Morocco, had all been removed, replaced with standard white El Al covers.

Alas, gone too were the Moroccan sweets. Though with renewed ties between Rabat and Jerusalem and the promise of direct flights, maybe I can next sate my need for chebakia in Marrakesh.

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