Israel used its participation in an international anti-terrorism conference in Morocco last week, which was dedicated mainly to the re-emerging threat from al-Qaeda, to call for stronger action against Iran.
Upon returning to Israel from the two-day conference in Marrakech, Dana Benvenisti-Gabay, the head of the Foreign Ministry’s regional security and counter-terrorism department, said she and some of Arab delegates at the conference used the opportunity to stress the threat emanating from the Islamic Republic and its Shiite proxies.
“The main topic of the conference was al-Qaeda, but I can say that Iran’s malign behavior came up, as well as Hezbollah,” Benvenisti-Gabay told The Times of Israel on Monday, referring to the Tehran-backed, Lebanon-based terrorist organization.
“On this issue, we agreed with the representatives from the Gulf states, which led to a joint effort that, even if it was not coordinated in advance, [saw] the Iranian threat being included in the concluding statement issued by the US State Department.”
At the conclusion of the so-called Warsaw Process Counterterrorism and Illicit Finance working group, which took place Wednesday and Thursday in Marrakesh, the State Department issued a statement that referred to both the Sunni al-Qaeda group as well as Iran, the most powerful Shiite nation in the region.
“Delegations discussed the ever-changing threat posed by al-Qaeda and its affiliates and acknowledged a range of efforts that can be employed to counter this still potent threat, including the promotion of a set of non-binding principles,” the statement read.
“Participants shared their regional perspectives on countering al-Qaeda and discussed threats from other terrorist groups. A number of delegations also noted the destabilizing activities of Iran and its proxies, especially Hezbollah, and the need to collectively confront Iran’s continued support to terrorist groups.”
Benvenisti-Gabay devoted most of her speech to Hezbollah, which she described as a “designated terror organization, financed and supplied by Iran, operating in Lebanon, using the Lebanese state’s resources for its own needs and using the Lebanese people as human shields.”
Hezbollah has an arsenal of 150,000 rockets and missiles that could hit any target anywhere in Israel, she told delegates from more than 50 countries and international organizations.
“Since they have enough rockets and missiles, they are now working to
achieve accurate missiles production in Lebanon,” she said. “Sponsored and equipped by Iran, [Hezbollah] today can convert a rocket into a precision-guided missile. Now imagine a terror organization being able to produce accurate missiles that can hit a target in the proximity of 10 meter.”
She also noted that Hezbollah continues to spread terror outside the Middle East, including in Europe, Asia, West Africa, and Latin America.
Hezbollah’s main sponsors in Tehran are exporting terror to the world through “its
own agencies” — such as the Intelligence and Security Minister and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — and its many proxies, she said. This shows how “important it is for us to create an international net, a safety net, against Iran’s non-stop activity to destabilize and undermine everything and all of us,” she said.
“They started here, in our region [but] they want to go, to spread [terror] everywhere.”
Speaking to The Times of Israel, Benvenisti-Gabay, who in October attended a similar conference in Manama, Bahrain, said last week’s summit in Morocco was an additional sign of the growing rapprochement between the Jewish state and the Arab world.
“The conference was another opportunity to meet with delegations from countries that we don’t usually meet with,” she said. “I can certainly say that I felt that there is much less suspicion against us [by Arab states], and a growing willingness to participate in meetings where Israelis are present. They really see Israel as a very relevant discussion partner for these topics.”
Benvenisti-Gabay’s name could not be published until she returned to Israel on Monday, due to security reasons.
Israel is one of more than 50 countries that are part of the Warsaw Process, which started with the Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East that took place in the Polish capital in February 2019.
That conference, co-sponsored by Poland and the US, was originally billed as part of global efforts to counter Iran, but was later toned down and instead focused on the vaguer goal of seeking stability in the Middle East.
Last week’s Counterterrorism and Illicit Finance working group was the final working group meeting of the Warsaw Process in advance of the 2020 Warsaw Ministerial to be held in Washington DC.
In a joint statement released Thursday, participating countries and organizations acknowledged “the ever-changing threat posed by al-Qaeda” and listed several principles to help promote “collective cooperation by participants to employ a comprehensive approach against the ever-changing and evolving al-Qaeda threat.”
Last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly attempted to arrange a three-way agreement, by which the US would recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara territory, in exchange for Morocco taking steps to normalize relations with Israel.
Netanyahu made several overtures to Washington over the past year to promote such a deal, but former national security adviser John Bolton was strongly opposed, according to a Channel 13 news report.
Following Bolton’s departure in September, Netanyahu reportedly raised the matter again with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but the White House has not agreed to the trade-off.
Israeli officials cited in the report said the proposed deal had something for everyone — US President Donald Trump could boast of having advanced ties between Israel and an Arab state, Netanyahu could visit Morocco and hold a high-profile meeting with King Mohammed VI, and Rabat could secure US recognition of its claims in the Western Sahara.
Morocco occupied large swathes of the Western Sahara in 1975 as Spain withdrew from the area and later annexed the territories in a move not recognized internationally.
The Israeli proposal was relayed to the US by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, who the TV report said had developed ties with an aide to Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita. Both Ben-Shabbat and Bourita also reportedly had ties with Yariv Elbaz, a Jewish businessman who is close to Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Morocco is considered an ally of the United States, and has long maintained informal but close intelligence ties with Israel.
Though the countries have no formal relations, Morocco has hosted Israeli leaders, and Israelis are allowed to visit there. Some 3,000 Jews live in Morocco, a fraction of the number from before the 1948 creation of Israel, but still the largest community in the Arab world.
In December, Channel 12 news reported that Netanyahu hoped to join Pompeo on a trip to Morocco, but when the secretary of state proposed the idea to the Moroccans, they refused and even declined to discuss the issue of normalization.
In October 2019, Benvenisti-Gabay represented Israel at the Warsaw Process’s working group on Maritime and Aviation Security in Bahrain.
Though Israel has ties with only two Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, there has been a warming with Bahrain and other Gulf states in recent years amid their shared antipathy toward Iran.
The two-day Bahrain conference was not the first time Israeli and Arab officials sat together in the context of the Warsaw process. On October 8, an Israeli representative sat with colleagues from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen and other Arab states at a conference on cybersecurity in Seoul.
Three days later, Benjamin Krasna, Israel’s deputy ambassador to the US, participated in the Warsaw working group on human rights in Washington, which was also attended by many Arab countries.
Netanyahu attended the original Warsaw conference in February 2019, along with senior dignitaries from the Arab world. During the summit, he sat next to the Yemeni foreign minister. At a closed event on the sidelines of the meeting, which Netanyahu attended, the foreign ministers of several Arab states openly discussed the notion that the Iranian threat was a more pressing concern for the region than the lingering Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israeli and US officials hailed the event as a breakthrough.
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.