Also says Israeli diplomatic office soon to open in Bahrain

Lapid: Israel, Morocco to upgrade to full diplomatic relations within two months

Opening liaison office in Rabat, foreign minister says he agreed with Moroccan counterpart on upgrading missions to embassies; Herzog invites king to visit

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (right) inaugurates Israel’s Liaison Office in Rabat, Morocco, on August 12, 2021, alongside Moroccan Deputy Foreign Minister  Mohcine Jazouli (center) and Welfare Minister Meir Cohen (left). (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (right) inaugurates Israel’s Liaison Office in Rabat, Morocco, on August 12, 2021, alongside Moroccan Deputy Foreign Minister Mohcine Jazouli (center) and Welfare Minister Meir Cohen (left). (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

CASABLANCA, Morocco — Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said on Thursday that Israel and Morocco would upgrade their relations to full diplomatic ties and open embassies in each others’ countries within two months.

Speaking at a press conference in Casablanca, where he met with members of the Jewish community on the second day of his historic trip to Morocco — the first by an Israeli minister since the country’s agreed to normalize relations last year — Lapid said that Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita is expected to be aboard the first Royal Air Maroc flight from Morocco to Israel in either October or early November, in order to open the Moroccan Embassy in Tel Aviv.

“Within two months, full embassies will be open — in Israel and in Rabat,” Lapid said, speaking soon after formally inaugurating Israel’s Liaison Office in the Moroccan capital.

The Trump administration brokered the Israel-Morocco normalization agreement last year, mending ties that were cut off following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Howver, the 2020 deal did not establish full diplomatic relations.

Morocco reportedly hesitated to move forward until it was assured that the Trump administration’s recognition of its sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara region would be upheld by United States President Joe Biden. Once the new administration assured Rabat that it would not reverse the recognition, Morocco decided to move forward with the normalization deal, the Walla news site reported

Lapid said on Thursday that Israel’s diplomatic relations with Morocco, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt form a strategic regional alliance against Iran.

“This poses a pragmatic alternative to religious extremism. We are creating a cycle of life in the face of the cycle of death created by Iran and its emissaries,” he said.

While he opposes a US-Iran revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — which placed curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief — Lapid recognized that he “does not see an alternative plan” and said that he has been in engaged in dialogue with the US and European powers “behind the scenes.”

Speaking in English to Moroccan journalists, Lapid revealed that he has been in touch with Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani about inaugurating Israel’s diplomatic mission there, and that it will likely happen within the next month.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks in Rabat, Morocco, on August 12, 2021. (Lazar Berman)

Asked about recently published Defense Ministry plans to advance projects for roughly 2,000 housing units in West Bank settlements, Lapid said the new unity government would allow building to support “natural growth” among both Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank’s Area C, where Israel has military and civilian control.

The Defense Ministry is slated to approve some 1,000 housing units for Palestinians, though many of these will be retroactive approvals for existing homes. Israel rarely approves building permits for Palestinians in Area C, who argue that this leaves them with little choice but to build illegally.

Lapid said that while the government had decided to allow for “natural growth” in the settlements, it will not advance any projects that will block future peace negotiations. However, settlement watchdogs argue that any additional Israeli expansion in the West Bank makes separating from the Palestinians in a two-state compromise more difficult to achieve.

“The decision we made about [settlement] construction was balanced, given the non-ideal conditions,” Lapid said, hinting that the government’s makeup of parties across the political spectrum forced those on the center and left to agree to a certain degree of settlement building that they might not be comfortable with.

At a small ceremony limited by COVID-19 restrictions, Lapid inaugurated Israel’s Liaison Office in Morocco’s capital Thursday morning, following last year’s agreement to reestablish ties after two decades.

Lapid was joined by Welfare Minister Meir Cohen, Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee head Ram Ben Barak and Charge D’affaires David Govrin.

Morocco was represented at the ceremony by Deputy Foreign Minister Mohcine Jazouli, with Bourita not present.

Israeli diplomatic sources told The Times of Israel that Bourita’s absence should not be seen as a snub, but rather an attempt to show that relations with Israel are routine and normal and do not demand high-level representation at every ceremony.

Israeli diplomats have been living and working out of a Rabat hotel. The new diplomatic office will be replaced when Israel finishes renovating the building that housed Israel’s diplomatic mission in Morocco until ties were suspended in 2000.

The foreign minister later spent time in Casablanca with the local Jewish community and prayed at the Beth-El Synagogue, before returning with the Israeli delegation Thursday night.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hands a letter to Morocco’s FM Nasser Bourita inviting King Mohammed VI to Israel, on August 11, 2021 (Shlomi Amsalem, GPO)

In a sign that relations were progressing, President Isaac Herzog on Thursday invited Morocco’s King Mohammed VI to visit Israel.

Herzog’s letter to the king was relayed by Lapid.

“Your majesty, I would welcome the opportunity to meet with you in the near future,” the letter reads. “We are committed to deepening the strength of our relations and I hope that they further expand and flourish over time.”

He also congratulated the king on the occasion of his Throne Day.

In this photo provided by the Moroccan Royal Palace, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, center, attends a ceremony at the Royal Palace in Tetouan, Morocco, on July 30, 2019. (Moroccan Royal Palace via AP)

On Wednesday evening, Lapid and Bourita signed three framework agreements that covered political consultation between the ministries; cooperation in culture, youth, and sports; and air service between the countries.

The signing ceremony took place after the two sat together for a private meeting that stretched well beyond the allotted time, a possible sign that there is personal chemistry between the ministers.

“I am sure there are at least ten more agreements in the pipelines,” Bourita predicted.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (L) and Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita (R) sign three framework agreements in Rabat, on August 11, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem, GPO)

Lapid is in Morocco for the first official visit by an Israeli top diplomat 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.

“This historic visit is a continuation of the longstanding 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 toward agreements that will bring innovation and opportunity to our countries,” he said.

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,” he said.

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, to visit Israel.

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

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 UAE 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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