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Israel, Morocco ink deals, agree to reopen mutual liaison offices within weeks

Joint US-Israeli delegation meets with King Mohammed VI, other senior officials during visit to Rabat; Kushner praises ‘huge strides’

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

Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat (1st from left), Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner (2nd left) and Moroccan King Mohammed VI (1st from right) at the royal palace in Rabat, December 22, 2020 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat (1st from left), Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner (2nd left) and Moroccan King Mohammed VI (1st from right) at the royal palace in Rabat, December 22, 2020 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

RABAT, Morocco — The heads of a joint Israeli-American delegation held high-level talks Tuesday with Moroccan officials, including King Mohammed VI, as Israel and Morocco announced they would move to swiftly reopen diplomatic missions in each country.

Earlier in the day, Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, traveled with a joint Israeli-American delegation to Rabat aboard the first commercial flight from Israel to Morocco, following the normalization of ties between the countries announced on December 10.

Upon arriving, the delegation visited the Mausoleum of King Mohammad V in Rabat — a national landmark — laying wreaths on the monarch’s tomb. From there, Ben-Shabbat, Kushner and their teams traveled to the royal palace to meet with Moroccan officials and with the king, who did not take part in the public ceremonies.

An Israeli official said the meeting with the king lasted approximately an hour. Another official familiar with the meetings said the talks were positive and achieved their goals.

During the meeting, Ben-Shabbat invited the king to visit Israel, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Afterward, representatives from the three countries — Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, Kushner and Ben-Shabbat — issued a trilateral declaration, which included an obligation to “resume full official contacts between Israeli and Moroccan counterparts” by the end of next month.

Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat (L) and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner (center) meet with Moroccan King Mohammed VI (R) at the royal palace in Rabat, Morocco, December 22, 2020. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Though the United States, which brokered the renewal of ties between Jerusalem and Rabat, anticipated that these normalized ties between two countries would develop full diplomatic ties, for now the relationship would remain at a slightly lower level. In place of embassies, the two planned to reopen liaison offices — Israel’s in Rabat, Morocco’s in Tel Aviv — which had been closed in late 2000, when Morocco decided to call off the existing low-level ties between the two countries with the outbreak of the Second Intifada.

Though the two countries’ liaison offices were closed some 20 years ago, the properties remained in each of their possession, allowing Jerusalem and Rabat to rapidly reopen them. Bourita said his country planned to open its office and install a diplomat at the level of an ambassador within the next two to three weeks. It was not immediately clear when Israel would reciprocate.

Morocco became the third Arab state this year to normalize ties with Israel under US-brokered deals, joining the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and in return, the US president fulfilled a decades-old goal of Morocco by backing its contested sovereignty in Western Sahara, what Rabat refers to as its “southern provinces.” 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. Sudan has also announced plans to normalize ties with Israel, though no official agreements have been signed.

In his speech, Kushner said the US planned to open a consulate in the Western Sahara city of Dakhla.

In addition to the plans to reopen liaison offices, Israel and Morocco signed four memoranda of understanding on different topics in order to solidify their normalization agreement. The agreements dealt with civil aviation, water resource research and finance. A fourth established that the two countries were waiving visa requirements for holders of diplomatic and service passports; regular passport holders will still require a visa to visit the other country.

The United States and Morocco also signed two memoranda of understanding, in which Washington pledged to invest heavily in the country with upwards of $4 billion in assorted funds.

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

In his speech ahead of the MOU signings, Kushner praised the efforts of Morocco and Israel to normalize ties, saying “huge strides” were made with the bilateral agreements, more of which he said were expected to be signed in the coming days.

Ben-Shabbat, the son of Morocco-born parents, said — first in Arabic and then in Hebrew — that normalized ties with Rabat have more than just “diplomatic and economic” value to the hundreds of thousands of Israelis of Moroccan descent.

“Like me, the many second and third-generation immigrants from Morocco, who live in Israel, hold onto the belief in the heritage of our fathers and continue it,” Ben-Shabbat said.

Kushner joked that while many Israelis have traveled to the United Arab Emirates after the signing of a normalization deal in September, he expected that Morocco will “give it a run for its money,” given the deep cultural ties between the two countries.

Alongside the talks at the royal palace, Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Upshitz and Moroccan Secretary of State in the Foreign Ministry Mahsan al-Jazouri also met in Rabat to hash out the plans to improve diplomatic relations between the two countries, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said.

“The two agreed that this was a new chapter in the relations between the nations, based on hundreds of years of deep ties. At the meeting, the director-general of the Foreign Ministry discussed the great emotion in Israel about the renewed ties between the two countries and the influence that the two societies had on one another,” according to a Foreign Ministry statement.

A joint US-Israeli delegation visits the Mausoleum of King Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco, December 22, 2020. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The Israeli delegation had been scheduled to stay in Morocco until Wednesday afternoon, but Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat said it would leave in the predawn hours of Wednesday morning instead to arrive in Israel before a compulsory quarantine requirement at state-run facilities takes effect that afternoon.

Though the flight to Rabat was the first commercial flight from Israel to Morocco, the return flight would not share the same status. In 1993, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and then-foreign minister Shimon Peres stopped in Morocco on their way back from a state trip to Washington. Their return was the first commercial flight from Morocco to Israel.

The American delegation planned to leave later on Wednesday, back to DC.

The flight from Tel Aviv to Rabat, which touched down in the Moroccan capital around 3 p.m. local time, was seen as highly symbolic after Morocco announced on December 10 a “resumption of relations” with Israel. Before take off, Kushner noted that a similar flight from Israel to the United Arab Emirates after a normalization agreement was reached kicked off a massive wave of Israelis traveling to the Gulf, tens of thousands as of this month. He said the flight to Rabat might have similar “momentum.”

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

A Moroccan Rabbi and a member of Casablanca’s Jewish community celebrate the fifth night of Hanukkah on December 14, 2020, in Casablanca. (Fadel Senna/AFP)

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.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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