Morocco is struggling to balance its alliance with Israel with support for the Palestinian cause, which is popular at home, a challenge that is becoming more complicated as Israel is ruled by the most right-wing government ever.
The North African country normalized its ties with Israel in December 2020, as part of a series of deals known as the Abraham Accords, supported by the administration of then US President Donald Trump.
In return, Rabat won a key concession from Washington: recognition of its sovereignty over disputed Western Sahara, where the Polisario movement is seeking independence.
But the move was at odds with a strongly pro-Palestinian public sentiment in Morocco.
That square has become more difficult to circle in recent months as violence has escalated in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the army carrying out deadly raids on the occupied West Bank.
But Rabat was quick to defend himself.
Case in point is the royal palace’s reaction after the opposition Islamic Justice and Development Party (PJD) “regretted” Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita for allegedly publicly defending Israel, even while doing ” criminal aggression against our Palestinian brothers”.
The office of King Mohammed VI hit back, accusing the PJD of expressing “irresponsible excesses and dangerous approximations of relations” between Morocco and Israel.
“Morocco’s position towards the Palestinian issue is irreversible,” he said, adding that Rabat’s foreign relations are the prerogative of the monarch.
– ‘Game-changer’ –
Rabat regularly reaffirms its commitment to Palestinian rights, and the king is chairman of the international Al-Quds committee, which works to preserve the “Arab-Muslim character” of Jerusalem.
The Palestinian cause continues to draw huge sympathy from Morocco, and civil society groups have launched a campaign to push back against normalization.
But Moroccan journalist and writer Jamal Amiar argues that “relations with Israel and supporting the Palestinian cause are not mutually exclusive if we defend the two-state solution.”
Rabat officially supports the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as its capital.
Since the 2020 agreement, Morocco’s ties with Israel have developed rapidly, with Rabat buying advanced drones and other military equipment as well as cyber security products.
“The Abraham Accords were a game changer, and a lot of things are changing fast,” Amiar said.
Amiar said that “Rabat’s partnership with Israel is based on common security interests and a long-term relationship that has helped build trust”.
But some observers have warned of an arms race between Morocco and its regional arch-rival Algeria, which supports both the Palestinians and the Polisario.
Algeria cut ties with Morocco months after the agreement with Israel citing “hostile acts”.
– Normalization, with conditions –
Moroccan-Israeli cooperation is also growing in other areas.
Bilateral trade grew by a third in 2022, with some 200,000 Israelis visiting Morocco, according to official figures.
About 700,000 Israelis are of Moroccan descent, and many have maintained strong ties.
“This human and cultural link reinforces the idea of consolidating the link with the Jewish state, regardless of the political and geopolitical situation,” said Zakaria Aboudahab, professor of international relations at Mohammed V University in Rabat.
But the rise of ultra-nationalist Israeli parties, which brought veteran hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to power in December, threatens to undermine deeper ties.
Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s comment this month that “there is no Palestinian” prompted criticism, including from Israel’s Washington ally.
Bourita responded by saying “Morocco rejects any attitude that could have a negative impact”.
Amiar admits that “any prolonged deterioration in relations between Israel and the Palestinians on the ground, in the West Bank or in Gaza, can only have a negative impact on public opinion on Israel-Morocco relations”.
Abu Dhabi agreed.
“Moroccan society in general will not support normalization that could harm the Palestinian cause,” he said.
That raises the question of whether clashes in the West Bank or in Israeli-occupied Jerusalem could shake the foundations of the Abrahamic Covenant.
Reflecting the challenges, the Negev Summit has been postponed; a forum in Morocco that was to be held this month to bring together foreign ministers from Israel and four Arab nations — Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates — as well as the United States.
“In the context of this turmoil, which is exacerbated by a complex situation in the Middle East … it is difficult to predict what will happen,” Aboudahab said.