With government facing growing trials, Lapid shines spotlight on Morocco ties

As COVID-19 spirals and some diplomatic appointments are questioned, FM uses personal charm and mutual interests to make progress in Rabat

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

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

CASABLANCA, Morocco — As Israel’s unity government starts to feel pressure, and some of his own choices as foreign minister come under scrutiny, Yair Lapid sought during his trailblazing trip to Morocco this week to focus attention on his grand vision for a moderate, peaceful and innovative Middle East.

“Strategically, what we are creating here, and what we have been creating over the past few months is essentially a political axis,” he told Israeli and Moroccan journalists in a Casablanca hotel Thursday afternoon.

“Think about it as a sort of circle consisting of Israel, Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan, and in some ways one can also add Cyprus, Greece, Bahrain, the UAE. All the nations that are moderate religiously with truly limitless economic potential.”

“We are creating a sort of circle of life against the terrorist circle of death of Iran… We are not offering only an alternative idea, but also economy, places of work for youth, an entry into the fields of technological innovation, a feeling of belonging to the future instead of the past.”

And Lapid came away with tangible achievements.

He signed three framework agreements in culture and sports, air travel, and relations between the two foreign ministries. He also announced that his Moroccan counterpart, Nasser Bourita, would be making a trip to Israel in October or November, and would be opening a full-fledged embassy in Israel.

Lapid added that he would be flying to Bahrain in the next month to open Israel’s embassy in the smallest Arab country, one of Israel’s new partners in the Gulf.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (left) and Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita sign agreements in Rabat on August 11, 2021. (Lazar Berman)

Beyond the official signs of progress, there were informal indications of welcome and personal warmth that surprised diplomats on the visit, according to a Foreign Ministry official on the trip.

In what has increasingly emerged as one of the most important tools in Lapid’s diplomatic kit, he built a personal rapport with Bourita during a private meeting that went well beyond its scheduled time.

In his UAE trip last month, Lapid also extended meetings with ministers as conversations moved from official business to religion, history, and philosophy.

King Mohammed VI, Morocco’s much-beloved ruler whose visage is ubiquitous in the kingdom, made sure to make a gesture as well. He sent Moroccan cookies to be distributed to the delegation on its red-eye flight back to Israel Thursday night.

El Al flight attendants distribute Moroccan cookies sent by King Mohammed VI as a gift to the Israeli delegation led by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, August 12, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

But amid all signs of progress, it is impossible to ignore some worrying matters for Lapid and the Naftali Bennett’s government.

Troubles at home

After Israel appeared to have put the coronavirus pandemic behind it in June, the past two months have seen a rapidly accelerating spread in morbidity, fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant.

With the pandemic returning with a vengeance, Bennett took time off with his family this weekend, canceling Sunday’s cabinet meeting. Lapid and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman had both been absent from coronavirus cabinet meetings until news of their non-participation reached the media.

The reconstituted “coronavirus cabinet” meets at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, June 23, 2021. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Facing questions on whether traveling to Morocco was truly necessary while the prime minister is asking Israelis not to fly abroad, Lapid revealed that he had canceled his own family’s three-day trip to Crete, and decided to fly to Morocco because it was a necessary part of his job, not a vacation.

“This is work. My mother-in-law opens her shop in the morning too, she does it according to all the possible regulations,” he said. “Of course, we are trying to follow the rules of corona as much as possible. It is impossible to manage a country’s foreign policy, and it is impossible to be a foreign minister of a country, without traveling at all, and it is certainly impossible to open a diplomatic mission in an important country like Morocco without being present.”

Lapid was also questioned on whether a trip that uses a charter flight to reach Morocco and large convoys of vehicles to move around the country is necessary or even appropriate for a government that says the world is facing a “climate crisis that threatens all of humanity.”

“Until a way to fly that protects the climate is invented, people will continue to fly,” he said. “In November, there is the climate summit in Glasgow, made up of all the people for whom the subject is dear to their hearts, and there will be a large delegation from Israel that will come to make declarations about our decisions on carbon dioxide emissions, and the majority will fly there… For now, that is the only option there is, therefore we can’t stop.”

(L-R) Yesh Atid MK Yael German, party leader Yair Lapid and LGBT rights activist Idan Roll who joined the party in a press conference in Tel Aviv on February 7, 2019. (Courtesy)

French, German

There have also been questions about some of Lapid’s political appointees for ambassadorial roles, especially the choice of Yael German to represent Israel in Paris.

German, a former health minister from Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, does not speak fluent French, which will make it difficult for a novice diplomat to succeed in a country famously defensive about its language.

“The people [I’ve appointed] are fit for their roles more than anyone,” he said, saying that government officials who have been helping his appointees prepare for their roles called him to express their enthusiasm over some of his picks.

No reason to fret

There were details of the visit that raised some eyebrows, but diplomatic officials insisted there were no surprises and no reason to worry.

After the two-hour tête-à-tête with Lapid Wednesday afternoon, Bourita called for the resumption of negotiations and a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines in the signing ceremony for the three MOUs.

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

Diplomatic officials told the Times of Israel that it was merely a pro forma nod to the Palestinian issue, and that the subject is seen by Rabat as a distant matter, which rarely comes up in Morocco-Israel meetings.

Though there were demonstrations in Moroccan cities during the 11-day May conflict between Hamas and Israel, and the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party recently hosted Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, the general Moroccan public might be more apathetic about the Palestinians that it appears.

File: Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Rafah Medical Complex in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip on November 23, 2019. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

A young Muslim woman with flawless English, who just finished her MA and is trying to leave Morocco for France, apologized for never having heard of Jerusalem when asked by the Times of Israel if she has any interest in visiting now that there are direct flights between the countries.

Bourita was also not present at the inauguration ceremony opening Israel’s Liaison Office Thursday morning, sending instead his deputy Mohcine Jazouli to represent the kingdom.

Diplomatic sources said they were not worried about the representation, insisting that the Moroccans wanted to treat relations with Israel as normal and natural, not needing high-level representation at every event.

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)

Sahara prize

The Moroccans have every reason to be pleased with the normalization process thus far. They were after one major prize by seeking ties with Israel, and they received it.

The Moroccans initiated the normalization process in 2018, said Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Ram Ben Barak of Yesh Atid, who had been a senior Mossad official.

Yesh Atid MK Ram Ben Barak recounts the origin of Morocco-Israel normalization in Rabat, August 12, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

“It came from a Moroccan official turning to me,” said Ben Barak over breakfast in the Sofitel Rabat gardens Thursday morning.

“He reached out and asked if there was a possibility of receiving our help to influence the Americans to help them with their Sahara problem.”

Morocco laid claim to the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony with rich phosphate resources and offshore fisheries, after Spain withdrew in 1975.

But the Algeria-backed Polisario Front took up arms to demand independence there, proclaiming the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976, and fighting a 16-year war with Morocco. Morocco has offered Western Sahara autonomy, but maintains the territory is a sovereign part of the kingdom.

“I said it’s possible, but Israel also has to receive something from it, the normalization of relations,” said Ben Barak. “And the Moroccans would have to publicly support Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century.'”

Moroccans celebrate in front of the parliament building in Rabat on December 13, 2020, after the US adopted a new official map of Morocco that includes the disputed territory of Western Sahara. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

Former US president Donald Trump put forth a plan in January 2020 that envisioned the creation of a Palestinian state in about 70 percent of the West Bank, a small handful of neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, most of Gaza and some areas of southern Israel — if the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, disarm Hamas and other terror groups in the coastal enclave, and fulfill other conditions.

“After a week, he got back to me and said, ‘We’re ready,” Ben Barak, revealed.

The process was held up by lack of action by the Netanyahu administration with the Americans, he said.

Ben Barak said he personally reached out to a friend in Washington who had been in the George W. Bush administration, and asked to be put in touch with Trump’s Middle East point man Jason Greenblatt.

Ben Barak and his Moroccan contact flew to the White House to present the idea to Greenblatt, who was excited by it.

US President Donald Trump (R) and Special Negotiations adviser Jason Greenblatt. (Twitter)

A month later, there was a meeting with Ben Barak, US State Department and White House officials, and Bourita and Jazouli.

At that meeting, the sides agreed that two days later, Netanyahu would secretly meet with Bourita on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

From then, said Ben Barak, the process continued between official government channels, and all three sides fulfilled their promises.

Israel is a valuable partner for Morocco as it seeks to become the dominant state in northwest Africa, a position held by Algeria for many years. With ties between Algeria and Iran growing, and Morocco facing threats ISIS and Al Qaeda terrorists, defense and security will make up an important pillar of the Israel-Morocco relationship.

A community with no future?

The old and once-large Moroccan Jewish community was a recurring theme in remarks from both sides during their meetings this week. Bourita referenced it in his joint remarks with Lapid, who opened his speech by talking about the two-thousand-year history of Morocco’s Jews.

“Over most of this period,” he said, “Moroccan Jews lived here in peace and deep friendship. That’s why, for hundreds of thousands of Israelis watching us today, Morocco is part of their identity… They will not travel here as tourists, they will travel as family to explore their heritage and their memories.”

He also stressed that he had brought along Welfare Minister Meir Cohen, who was born in Morocco.

Foreign minister Yair Lapid with Minister of Welfare Meir Cohen seen during a plenary session at the assembly of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem, July 14, 2021. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Though the local Jewish community and its close ties with Israel certainly made the normalization process smoother, the focus on the community raises some questions.

At times, the topic feels like a way to avoid talking about weightier issues.

Local leaders are not optimistic about the future of the community.

A photo of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI sits next to a menorah at Casablanca’s Bet El synagogue, August 12, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

“I don’t think there is a future,” said Rabbi Hazut, who has served at the Bet El synagogue in Morocco for more than thirty years.

Hazut emphasized that relations with Muslim neighbors and the government are good, but that young Moroccan Jews choose to build lives in France or Israel.

The final event on Lapid’s trip was at Bet El, where Hazut offered a prayer for the king and the royal family in Arabic and Hebrew.

Israeli singer Shimon Buskila, whose parents were born in Morocco, sang his Moroccan Arabic hit Ya Mama in front of Lapid and the dignitaries.

On the flight home, after serenading the passengers with a song on the plane’s PA system, Buskila said that it had always been a dream to visit Morocco.

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