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Israel-Morocco defense deal opens door to intel sharing, joint drills

Head of the Israeli Defense Ministry’s Political-Military Bureau says agreement signed by Gantz will create a ‘strategic alliance of knowledge’ between Jerusalem and Rabat

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, shakes hands with his Moroccan counterpart Abdellatif Loudiyi, after signing a memorandum of understanding between the two countries at the Moroccan Defense Ministry in Rabat on November 24, 2021. (Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, shakes hands with his Moroccan counterpart Abdellatif Loudiyi, after signing a memorandum of understanding between the two countries at the Moroccan Defense Ministry in Rabat on November 24, 2021. (Defense Ministry)

RABAT, Morocco — A top Israeli defense official said Jerusalem and Rabat will begin cooperating deeply on security issues, more freely sharing intelligence and holding joint exercises, following the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the two countries on Wednesday.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz is in Morocco this week aiming to bolster defense ties between the countries, marking a rare public show of cooperation between Israel and an Arab state on sensitive security issues.

“The agreement that we signed will allow us to cooperate, with exercises, with information — this is an agreement that will allow us to assist them with whatever they need from us, in accordance — of course — with our own interests. We have a strategic alliance of knowledge,” said Zohar Palti, the head of the Defense Ministry’s Political-Military Bureau, speaking to reporters on the sideline of Gantz’s visit to Rabat, which began Wednesday.

Israel does not share many of the threats facing Morocco. Rabat’s main challenge has come from the separatist Polisario Front movement seeking to establish an independent state in Western Sahara, which Rabat claims as its own, and from neighboring Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front.

However, Jerusalem and Rabat are both deeply involved in the fight against international Islamic terror groups like Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, which operate both in Israel’s area of the Middle East and in Africa. Israel’s primary enemy Iran and its proxy Hezbollah are also believed to be involved to a certain extent in the Moroccan-Algerian conflict.

“Morocco has been fighting terror on a number of fronts over the years, and it is a country that has fought Al-Qaeda and the global jihad,” said Palti, whose office is responsible for maintaining Israel’s high-level strategic partnerships, among other things.

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

Under the MOU signed on Wednesday, the two countries’ defense ministries and militaries can more easily speak with one another and share information, whereas in the past, such communication was only conducted through their respective intelligence services.

“It will allow the beginning of official security cooperation between the two [countries]. The agreement includes formalizing intelligence-sharing and will allow for ties between their defense industries, defense procurement and joint exercises,” the Defense Ministry said.

Though a number of weapons deals are expected to be signed as a result of the renewed ties and the MOU, a senior Israeli defense official said that arms sales will not form the basis of the relationship between Israel and Morocco.

“The ties with Morocco are not based on weapons sales but on strengthening our ties to the region and building a long-term connection that will serve as a bedrock of Israeli security,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Jerusalem and Rabat resumed diplomatic relations last year as part of then-US president Donald Trump’s so-called Abraham Accords. As part of the agreement, Washington said it would recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, though the Biden administration has yet to do so.

Benny Gantz, center, is welcomed by Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, in Rabat, Morocco, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. (AP/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

Under the Abraham Accords, Israel also normalized ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and, in principle, with Sudan, though that country’s turbulent political situation has made it difficult for the two to sign a formal agreement.

For Israel, the renewed ties with Morocco do not have immediate, practical significance for national security, in the way that its newfound relationships with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates do, working with Israel against their shared enemy, Iran. However, the relationship is considered of potentially greater importance, allowing for strong, natural ties with an Arab country, not based on a quid pro quo.

“Israel has an interest in expanding its cooperation in the area, including on a security level, and this allows us to tighten our Abraham Accords partnerships,” Palti said.

Palti, who served for years in the Mossad before moving to the Defense Ministry, said the type of relationship Israel was trying to build with Morocco could be seen in Gantz’s trip and the way he was warmly and openly received in Rabat, meeting with the country’s defense minister, foreign minister, army chief and the head of its intelligence service, the General Directorate for Territorial Surveillance.

“We are in the midst of an unprecedented event and one of the high points of the Abraham Accords, a plane carrying a military delegation, including soldiers in uniform and a defense minister that lands in Rabat openly and meets with the military and diplomatic leadership of Morocco — the foreign minister, the defense minister, the head of the intelligence service, the chief of staff — this is an event we have never seen before,” he said.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, meets his Moroccan counterpart Abdellatif Loudiyi, at the Moroccan Defense Ministry in Rabat on November 24, 2021. (Defense Ministry)

At the same time, the past year has seen a number of joint military exercises and public demonstrations of the defense ties between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, while Morocco has so far not taken part in these enterprises. However, Israel sees this too as a positive development, as the two countries have decided to first cooperate on civilian issues, building up the people-to-people ties between the countries.

Palti noted the unique relationship that Israel has with Morocco, as hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis have Moroccan roots, including several members of the Israeli delegation to Rabat.

“Israel is indebted to Morocco, which for years accepted Jews, protected them, and protected their heritage. That is the basis [for the relationship],” Palti said.

Defense ties underpinned Israel’s relationship with Morocco long before the countries first formally developed ties in the early 1990s; for decades, the countries cooperated on a number of espionage and military issues over. Most notably, this included Morocco allowing Israel’s Mossad to bug the rooms of military commanders from across the Arab world who had gathered for a meeting in Casablanca, giving Israel vital intelligence ahead of the 1967 Six Day War. Israel, in turn, helped abduct a Moroccan opposition leader, Mehdi Ben Barka, who was then tortured and murdered, according to Mossad historian Ronen Bergman.

Rabat officially halted its ties with Israel in 2000 with the outbreak of the Second Intifada, but the two countries quietly maintained a degree of contact through their respective intelligence services over the past 20 years.

“We must give credit to the generations of people from security services and other branches who built the infrastructure that we have here,” Palti said.

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