Netanyahu said set to speak with Moroccan king Friday on normalization deal

Trump also to take part in call, Israeli officials tell local media; Israeli airlines all plan to operate routes; diplomat says Biden unlikely to reverse West Sahara decision

Left: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Nov. 19, 2020; Right: Morocco's King Mohammed VI in Paris, May 2, 2017 (AP Photos/Maya Alleruzzo, Michel Euler)
Left: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Nov. 19, 2020; Right: Morocco's King Mohammed VI in Paris, May 2, 2017 (AP Photos/Maya Alleruzzo, Michel Euler)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to hold a phone call with Moroccan King Mohammed VI and US President Donald Trump Friday to discuss Israel and Morocco’s agreement to normalize ties, according to multiple media reports citing senior Israeli officials.

Trump announced Thursday that Jerusalem and Rabat would establish full diplomatic relations after 20 years of disconnect, in a move hailed by all sides and one that marks the fourth Arab-Israeli agreement in four months.

As part of the announcement, Trump said that the US would recognize Morocco’s claim over the disputed Western Sahara region — a likely contentious move for an administration ending its term in little over a month.

But a top Foreign Ministry official told Army Radio on Friday that the incoming Biden administration was unlikely to reverse the decision. Lior Ben Dor, director of the Egypt and Maghreb Department at the ministry, said he did not “envision such a scenario.” He added he believed Israel and Morocco would “make use of the momentum and push forward” to closer ties.

US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House, Dec. 7, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

“There is great potential,” he said.

Einat Levi, a researcher at the Mitvim foreign policy think tank who specializes in Israeli Moroccan relations, also told the radio station it was highly unlikely President-elect Joe Biden would undo Trump’s move.

Meanwhile Israeli airlines were quick to announce their intent to open direct routes between Israel and Morocco.

El Al welcomed the agreement and said it would immediately begin preparations for direct flights to Casablanca. “We have long been examining the economic and operatinal possibility of running direct flights to Morocco,” the company said.

“This is a historic and joyful announcement,” Gil Stav. vice president of marketing and sales at Israir, told Maariv. He said the company would seek approval to fly to Morocco as soon as possible, and said he believed it would be a very popular destination.

Arkia too said it would seek to operate a daily route to the North African nation, including “package deals, heritage trips and group trips.”

An Arkia plane lands at Ben Gurion International Airport, on November 3, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

As his time in office winds down, Trump said Israel and Morocco would restore diplomatic and other relations, including the immediate opening of liaison offices in Rabat and Tel Aviv and the eventual opening of embassies. US officials said it would also include joint overflight rights for airlines.

Channel 13 news reported that the White House is aiming to hold a ceremony to make the agreement official before Trump leaves office on January 20.

In their first reactions to Trump’s announcement later Thursday, Netanyahu and King Mohammed lauded the latest normalization agreement.

“This will be a very warm peace. On this Hannukah, the light of peace has never shone brighter than today in the Middle East,” said Netanyahu at a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony at the Western Wall. He said the relationship of the peoples of both countries “has long been characterized by sympathy, respect, fondness and love,” and praised King Mohammed’s “historic decision” to make peace.

King Mohammed said in a statement that Morocco would take three moves in the near future to advance relations. First, there would be moves to facilitate direct flights to transport Jews of Moroccan origin and Israeli tourists to and from Morocco, he said.

Second, the North African nation will also seek to “resume official bilateral ties and diplomatic relations [with Israel] as soon as possible.”

Members of the Polisario Front, the organization disputing sovereignty over Western Sahara with Morocco, mourn their leader, Mohamed Abdelaziz, during his funeral held in the Rabouni refugees camp, south western Algeria, June 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Sidali Djarboub, File)

Morocco will also seek “to develop innovative relationships in the economic and technological fields. As part of this goal, there will be work on renewing liaison offices in the two countries, as was the case in the past for many years, until 2002,” King Mohammed said.

Explaining the decision to normalize, King Mohammed cited among other reasons “the historical role that Morocco has played in bringing the peoples of the region together and supporting security and stability in the Middle East, and given the special ties that bind the Jewish community of Moroccan origin, including those in Israel, to the person of His Majesty the King.”

Israel and Morocco established low-level diplomatic relations during the 1990s following Israel’s interim peace accords with the Palestinians, but those ties were suspended after the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000. Since then, however, the informal ties have continued, and an estimated 50,000 Israelis travel to Morocco each year on trips, learning about the Jewish community and retracing family histories.

In a subsequent briefing with reporters, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner said the decision on Western Sahara was a “recognition of an inevitability” after there had “quite frankly… been no progress” for decades.

He expressed hope that the move would make the region more stable, calling the Moroccan Kingdom a “tolerant society.”

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner gives thumbs up as he walks back to the West Wing after a television interview at the White House, Oct. 26, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Morocco is the fourth Arab nation to recognize Israel as the administration seeks to expand its “Abraham Accords” framework, which began over the summer with an agreement between the Jewish state and the United Arab Emirates.

Bahrain and Sudan have followed suit and administration officials have also been trying to bring Saudi Arabia into the fold.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi also welcomed the move in a statement, thanking Trump for “promoting peace and stability in the Middle East and supporting Israel.”

“This is another great day for Israeli diplomacy — a day of light — as befits the holiday of Hanukkah,” he added, referencing the Jewish holiday that began on Thursday evening.

According to Channel 13, Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Benny Gantz — of the fractious coalition’s Blue and White Party –were updated regarding progress on the deal several weeks ago, but only by the White House and not Netanyahu’s office. Channel 12 said Netanyahu spoke on the phone with Gantz earlier Thursday, and did not mention the imminent announcement.

The two Blue and White ministers were also kept out of the loop ahead of the normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, which they only learned about after the fact.

Kushner also insisted that it was only a matter of time before Saudi Arabia would agree to follow suit.

“Israel and Saudi Arabia coming together and having full normalization at this point is an inevitability, but the timeframe, obviously, will come — is something that has to be worked out,” Kushner told reporters, adding that it would require “strong US leadership in the region.”

“If you look at where we’ve come in the last six months, the region has essentially gone from a solid to a liquid, and it feels like there’s a lot more fluidity,” he said.

While the deal is certain to be welcomed warmly in Israel, it was not immediately clear how the Moroccan public would react. In September, hundreds demonstrated in Rabat against the Israeli normalization deals with the “treacherous countries” UAE and Bahrain.

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