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Lapid heads to Morocco in highest-level visit since reestablishment of ties

Foreign minister to open diplomatic mission in Rabat, meet with Moroccan counterpart Bourita; two-day trip is first by an Israeli top diplomat since 2003

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Head of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on July 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Head of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on July 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid took off for a two-day visit to Morocco on Wednesday, in the first official visit by Israel’s top diplomatic officer since 2003 and the highest-level trip since an agreement was signed by Jerusalem and Rabat last year to reestablish ties after some two decades.

Lapid will officially open up the Israeli Liaison Office in Rabat in the afternoon, and will meet with his Moroccan counterpart, Nasser Bourita.

On Thursday, Lapid will spend time in Casablanca with the local Jewish community and will pray in the Beth-El synagogue there.

The trip is the fruit of a US-brokered deal for Morocco to resume ties with Israel, which were cut off in 2000 following the outbreak of the Second Intifada. Though the countries are not establishing full ties, Israeli officials have said they expect Rabat to eventually upgrade the relationship and establish full diplomatic missions.

“This historic visit is a continuation of the long-standing friendship and deep roots and traditions that the Jewish community in Morocco, and the large community of Israelis with origins in Morocco, have,” Lapid said in a statement, referring to the million-plus Israelis of Moroccan heritage, many of whom regularly visit the North African country.

“It will be a moment for political and economic activity, and we will continue to work towards agreements that will bring innovation and opportunity to our countries.”

Joining Lapid on the flight are Welfare Minister Meir Cohen, born in Essaouira, Morocco; Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz; Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Ram Ben Barak; and senior Health Ministry official Inbar Zucker.

Israeli tourists arrive at the Marrakech-Menara International Airport on the first direct commercial flight between Israel and Morocco, on July 25, 2021. (FADEL SENNA / AFP)

David Levy visited Morocco as foreign minister in December 1999. In 2003, then-foreign minister Silvan Shalom made an official visit in an unsuccessful bid to convince Rabat to resume diplomatic relations.

Despite the lack of official ties in the intervening years, Israel and Morocco maintained a quiet relationship in the arms trade sector and Morocco continued to allow Israelis to visit, albeit only as part of organized groups.

The first direct commercial flights between Israel and Morocco took off in July, seven months after the countries agreed to normalize and open reciprocal diplomatic offices, but not embassies.

An Israeli diplomatic source said last month that the ties with the North African kingdom “will turn into full diplomatic relations.”

Experts say the trip will give Lapid an opportunity to improve not only bilateral ties but also Israel’s regional standing.

“An emphasis on regional and multi-regional opportunities offered by improved Israel-Morocco relations could help upgrade ties into full ambassadorial-level diplomatic relations and inject new substance into the developing ties,” said Nimrod Goren, President of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

“The normalization with Morocco has already assisted Israel recently in reclaiming an observer status in the African Union, and it could lead to enhanced Israeli impact in the Mediterranean, promote joint Israel-Morocco participation in heavily-funded EU programs, support high-level Israeli-Palestinian policy dialogue channels, and enable Israeli companies to be part of Moroccan-Emirati business cooperation.”

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita at a press conference after holding talks with his Spanish counterpart, in Rabat, Morocco, on June 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

In July, Lapid invited his Moroccan counterpart, Nasser Bourita, to visit Israel.

“After my trip to Morocco, Minister Bourita will come visit Israel to open missions here,” Lapid said at a Yesh Atid faction meeting in the Knesset at the time.

Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz was in Morocco in early July and delivered Lapid’s written invitation during a meeting with Bourita.

Lapid stressed in his letter that restoring ties between Israel and Morocco was a historical milestone. Israel’s top diplomat also expressed his desire to make progress in bilateral cooperation in the fields of trade, technology, culture and tourism.

Israeli national security advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat speaks to a press at the royal palace in Rabat, Morocco, on December 22, 2020. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Also last month, a Moroccan air force plane touched down in Israel’s Hatzor Air Base, reportedly to take part in a multinational Israeli Air Force exercise.

The agreement with Morocco came as part of a wave of diplomatic agreements between Israel and Arab states, including the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. In late June, Lapid made a historic trip to the United Arab Emirates to open the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi and the consulate in Dubai.

Judah Ari Gross and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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