The latest normalization agreement, between Israel and Morocco, has political, diplomatic and financial significance for the broader world. It matters to me personally as well. On a human level, it brings me immense joy seeing the nations of the world march toward peace instead of war. On a Jewish level, knowing that Israel has more friends in the region brings a sense of security.
At the same time, as an Ashkenazi Jew raised in North America, I recognize that my Moroccan Jewish brothers and sisters have been particularly impacted by this news. My good friend, David Suissa, editor-in-chief of The Jewish Journal, is a perfect example. He grew up in Morocco and immigrated to Montreal before making his way to Los Angeles, where he now lives.
Suissa recently reflected on what this agreement means to him. Remembering his youth in Morocco, he recalled how relationships between the country’s Jews and Muslim Arabs were often positive, but that Moroccan Muslim Arabs did not necessarily regard Israeli Jews with the same level of affection.
Nevertheless, his parents frequently reminded him, “The King of Morocco loves the Jews.” He remembered he was able to “practice our tradition in a Muslim land that respected our tradition.” In Suissa’s memory, life was good for Jews in Morocco.
Somewhat paradoxically, life for Moroccan Jews was not as good in Israel when they arrived in the 1950s as it had been in Morocco. Suissa explained that Moroccan and Sephardic Jews, “who looked more like Arabs than European Jews,” faced plenty of discrimination after they emigrated to the Jewish state. Yet Arabic culture remained ingrained with this community and has continued to influence their music, food and customs.
More than 50% of Israeli Jews are from the Middle East and North African countries. For them, and for Moroccan Jews around the world, the normalization agreements between Israel and Arab governments are not just diplomatically, financially and politically significant; they are personal.
Before we unpack the political and historical dimensions of this story, I wanted to make sure we first acknowledged the human component of this agreement.
Morocco and Israel recently agreed to establish diplomatic relations. This makes Morocco the fourth Arab state to normalize ties with Israel in the last four months, following agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. Separately, Israel also established diplomatic ties with Bhutan, a Buddhist country in the Himalayas.
President Donald Trump announced that the two countries agreed to “full diplomatic relations” and that the U.S. was recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over the long-disputed Western Sahara region as part of the deal. The Moroccan government also said that it was adding Jewish history and culture to the national school curriculum, a move that is a “first” in the region.
The North African kingdom joins a growing list of Arab countries ready to recognize Israel. However, many argue this deal is different because Israel and Morocco already had public relations during the 1990s and have maintained informal ties since then. Morocco is also connected to Israel through having centuries of Jewish history and North Africa’s largest Jewish community.
In an interview following the announcement, Morrocan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita declared that “Israel’s relations with Morocco are special and can’t be compared to the relations that Israel has with any other Arab country.” What is the story of the Moroccan Jewish community, and why does this latest deal matter for Israel and the Middle East? And which country will be next to normalize with Israel?
The Jews of Morocco: A Brief History
Morocco’s Jewish community dates back to the period following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The population grew in the 12th century when the Almohad Caliphate, a Muslim empire, came to power in Spain and forced Jews and Christians to convert to Islam, leading much of the Jewish community to flee to Morocco.
Among this group of Spanish Jewish refugees was the legendary scholar Rambam (Maimonides), who lived and studied in Fez, Morocco from age 13 to 30. The population grew yet again after the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, as Jews who were expelled by Catholic kings sought refuge in Morocco.
In the 18th century, under the leadership of Mohammed ben Abdallah of the Alawite dynasty, the Moroccan coastal city of Essaouira became the only city in the Islamic world with a majority Jewish population and 37 synagogues. By the end of the 1940s, approximately 250,000 Jews lived in Morocco, representing 10% of the country’s population.
However, the vast majority of them emigrated to Israel after 1948, fleeing riots and economic boycotts of Jews that broke out after the creation of the Jewish state. By 1968, following additional hostilities directed against them, only about 50,000 Jews remained in Morocco. Today, 3,000 Jews still remain in Morocco, mostly in the port city of Casablanca, the nation’s largest city.
The new Moroccan immigrants faced many challenges after arriving in Israel. Historian Anita Shapira writes that the first wave of immigrants in the 1950s received particularly bad press and many Israelis believed they had come from harsh conditions of poverty. The Moroccan immigrants’ absorption difficulties in Israel included inadequate housing conditions, lack of employment and social marginalization.
In 1959, a group of young Moroccan-Israelis from Haifa’s Wadi Salib neighborhood — who had grown up in Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces — launched a protest accompanied by rioting in response to the discrimination they experienced.
Although the protests ended quickly following minor government policy changes made to improve life for Moroccan-Israelis, they received significant press coverage and brought the issue to the attention of the Israeli public.
In 1977, the Moroccan community was critical in electing the Likud party and Menachem Begin as prime minister, giving them a voice at the national level.
Approximately one million Jews of Moroccan descent currently live in Israel. They are represented in leadership positions across Israeli society, including in business, politics, the IDF, sports and arts and culture.
Morocco and Israel established low-level diplomatic relations in the mid-1990s after the Oslo Accords, the interim peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. However, the North African kingdom suspended its ties with the Jewish state in 2000 in response to the Second Intifada. The relationship has continued informally since then, with approximately 50,000 Israelis traveling to Morocco each year.
With the Trump administration’s offer to change its Western Sahara policy — and the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan breaking the taboo of publicly recognizing Israel — Morocco’s leader, King Mohammad VI, decided the time was right to formalize his country’s ties with the Jewish state.
Israel’s Changing Geopolitical Status in the Middle East
With six Arab nations — Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco — now recognizing Israel, including four in the past four months, Israel is enjoying a geopolitical status change in the Middle East and Arab-Israeli conflict. The tiny Jewish state that fought a war against its neighboring countries in order to become a state now has diplomatic ties with six Arab states.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s assertion that a fundamental regional shift was taking place after the UAE deal is proving true: “There are really two coalitions in the region today — those who want to let the future bury the past and those who want to let the past keep burying the future. The UAE is taking the helm of the first, and it is leaving Iran to be the leader of the second.”
With the new UAE-led, anti-Iranian coalition actually emerging, it is looking like Israel can no longer be perceived as the “David” fighting against the “Goliath” of a united front of neighboring Arab armies. Instead, the Jewish state is becoming a regional superpower with diplomatic ties to six Arab states and counting. At the same time, with polls finding the agreements to be extremely unpopular with ordinary Arab citizens, Israelis may still feel vulnerable in the region.
Despite the low levels of public support, Arab governments that have signed on to the Abraham Accords appear to be investing in a warm peace with Israel.
Haviv Rettig Gur of The Times of Israel pointed out that although the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco each reaped practical benefits in exchange for normalization, the agreements have been more than just transactional: The UAE ensured their hotels were stocked with kosher food for Israeli Jewish visitors, an Emirati royal family member chose to invest in the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, and Morocco added Jewish history to their national school curriculum.
For Gur, these gestures show that Israel’s new Arab allies view Israel not only as a tactical security partner, but also as a source of inspiration in areas like entrepreneurship, science and innovation.
Reactions to the Israel-Morocco Normalization Agreement
Despite Moroccan and other Arab leaders’ friendly overtures toward Israel, in Morocco, politicians are divided on the issue. While some expressed support for the agreement as the mere formalization of an existing relationship, others denounced it, arguing that Morocco’s claim on Western Sahara is already legitimate without U.S. recognition and that the deal is a betrayal of the Palestinians.
Surveys have found that the general Morrocan population opposes normalization with Israel: A poll conducted by Arab Barometer found that only 9% of Moroccans favored the accords between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. And according to the 2019-2020 Arab Opinion Index, a public opinion poll of the Arab world, 88% of Moroccans said they opposed diplomatic recognition of Israel.
Authorities broke up a group of activists who were trying to gather to protest against the deal; one leader of the group said this was evidence that the agreement was “imposed on Moroccans.” Other rallies were held in support of the deal and the Western Sahara victory.
The Palestinian Authority was uncharacteristically silent on the deal, after issuing harsh condemnations of the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan over each of their agreements with Israel.
Palestinian officials told The Jerusalem Post that the PA is extremely unhappy with Morocco’s decision but does not want to “cause additional damage to our relationships with the Arab countries” by further condemning them. The PA’s lack of comment may also show they are adjusting to a new regional reality in which open ties with Israel are no longer off limits.
Elsewhere in the region, Egypt and Oman praised the deal. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called it “an important step towards more stability and regional cooperation” in the Middle East. The Oman foreign ministry said in a statement that it hoped the agreement “will further endeavours to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”
In Israel, Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, who was born in Morocco, said in a video posted to Twitter: “We waited so long for this day when there would be real peace between the Moroccan nation and the Jewish people.”
While most Israeli citizens have cheered on the agreements, not everyone feels the same. Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Noa Landau argued that American recognition of Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara — in which the Sahrawi people have been fighting for their independence — impugns the deal’s integrity. She wrote that the agreement amounts to “occupation in exchange for occupation” and that Israel is “joining the historic movement of those wishing to subvert and dismantle the multilateral system.”
Which Country Will Normalize With Israel Next?
Oman and Indonesia could be the next countries to normalize with Israel. Israel and Oman have previously had trade relations, and the countries cooperate on security issues. Israel and Indonesia — which has the world’s largest Muslim population but is not Arab — work together informally in trade and tourism.
Saudi Arabia is likely to have played a role in the previous Arab-Israeli agreements, including the Morocco deal; however, according to a report on Israel’s Channel 13, the Saudis are unlikely to be next, as they are working with the Trump administration to convince several other nations to normalize with Israel before making the move themselves.
Following the Morocco agreement, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner told a group of reporters that normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia “is an inevitability but the timeframe…is something that has to be worked out.”
An unnamed Israeli official told Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that additional talks were underway with Niger, Mali, Djibouti, Mauritania and the Comoro Islands in Africa as well as Pakistan, Brunei, Bangladesh and the Maldives in Asia.
In September, following the agreements with Bahrain and the UAE, Trump said he expected between five and nine additional countries would join the Abraham Accords.
The Bottom Line
With the normalization agreement between Israel and Morocco, the Jewish state is resuming ties with a country that has had a Jewish presence since antiquity. Today, Morocco is home to the largest Jewish community in North Africa.
With six Arab nations — Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco — now recognizing Israel, including four in the past four months, Israel is enjoying a geopolitical status change in the Middle East and Arab-Israeli conflict. It looks like Israel can no longer be perceived as the “David” fighting against the “Goliath” of a united front of neighboring Arab armies.
At the same time, given that support for the agreements among Arab citizens is very low, Israelis may still feel vulnerable in the region. The Palestinian Authority was uncharacteristically silent on the agreement, perhaps out of a desire to maintain their relations with Morocco. Oman and Indonesia could be the next countries to normalize with Israel.
Originally Published Jul 15 2022 09:37AM EDT