In 1998, I interviewed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel for the Moroccan weekly Le Journal. Back then, it was nothing short of a revolution – the first time a journalist from an Arab-Muslim state had met with such a high-level official of what we call the “Zionist entity.”
The idea for the interview had come rather randomly, and the decision to pursue it was not taken in the spirit of provocation or propaganda in a country known for its indefectible solidarity with the Palestinians. It came during a heated debate with a diplomat in the Israeli liaison office in Rabat, Amir Weissbrod, who would later become Israel’s ambassador to Jordan.
“You criticize Israel,” he said. “It’s your right, but do you really know Israel?”
It was meant as a challenge, but he was right. I had preconceived ideas of the Jewish state, based partly on experience and partly on social conditioning. Growing up in the 1960s, I recall going to the movie theater to watch pro-Palestinian movies, and clapping loudly along with everyone else when, at the end, the Israeli soldier or settler was killed. And despite being poor, I never protested against the price of admission, of which a substantial percentage was earmarked for the Palestinians, whom Israel occupied, enslaved and to whom it did not intend to give back one inch of land.
It was on this feeling of injustice that the “sacred cause” of Palestine was born, way before the “sacred cause” of Western Sahara appeared. Two “sacred causes” for one people.
It was in an attempt to strengthen my convictions, or perhaps even change them, that I decided to interview Netanyahu (then in his first term as prime minister) and, in order to maintain some kind of balance, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. It was also to get to know the reality in a country where the second largest Jewish community – around 600,000 to 700,000 souls – was, after all, of Moroccan descent.
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There remained one unknown: how would the Moroccan “street,” where millions assembled to show their strident support for the Palestinians, react? The Israeli liaison office head was reticent, to put it mildly. Gadi Golan had French origins and a bushy chin-strap beard that made him look a little like a 19th-century schoolteacher. “They’ll eat you whole,” he would repeatedly say, talking about the Islamists and left-wing, pan-Arab movements. The latter, though relatively small, were very active in the partisan Arabic media.
Even at my own paper, the leadership was divided. Le Journal’s publisher, Aboubakr Jamai, argued for it, in the name of freedom of information – a new concept in 1998 Morocco. Managing editor Jamal Berraoui, a veteran of the country’s institutional left, was against. Not for emotional or ideological reasons, mind you; he just would have liked to do the interview himself.
It took a few days, but we finally arrived at the conclusion that it should be done, despite the fallout that would perhaps bury us all. General Director Ali Amar and myself flew over to Tel Aviv, leaving behind a rebellion from part of the newsroom at Assahifa (our sister weekly publication in Arabic) angered by the initiative. They protested not only the perceived blow to their image but also to their coffers: the trip would cost us $5,000 in expenses, which they could have dearly used.
As I revisit my notes (kept in a large traditional wedding trunk I inherited from my mother), several scenes, meetings and anecdotes spring to mind. On the whole, despite its symbolic nature, this was not an epic voyage. I remember it as an initiatory journey into a forbidden locale where Moroccan Jews, our country mates, and Palestinian Muslims, our brothers in religion, lived in opposition. The fate of the others (Mizrahim, Ashkenazim, Christians) seemed insignificant.
The first shock came in Paris when El Al personnel put us through a meticulous search, introducing us to the security constraints of the Jewish state. Arriving in Tel Aviv, the controls were even stricter, conducted by zealous police officers who found it hard to believe our visas were real, let alone our press credentials, or that we were indeed on our way to interview the prime minister.
In Morocco, police officers behave a little like in a banana republic: When you utter the name of a high-ranking official, they suddenly shed their unpleasant attitude for an impeccable salute. In Israel, they simply could not understand that we were there to see the most important man in the country. Or perhaps they simply did not care. All they wanted to know was that our documentation was real. Welcome to Israel!
“These are necessary inconveniences. You are here in a spartan state with a Sword of Damocles hanging over its head,” a young, blond official later explained. She would often get a little exasperated having to explain the rules to us, when she would rather have been with her family.
The hotel where we were supposed to stay (at our own expense!) was in an almost deserted area, far from the center of Al Quds (Jerusalem). It had been chosen by the Israeli authorities. During our whole stay, we had the feeling of being discreetly but constantly watched. At the hotel, the faxes we would receive from our newsroom in Casablanca would be delivered with an hour’s delay, in case there were coded messages... Who knows? It could also have been the fruit of our understandable paranoia.
To kill time before Netanyahu deigned to meet us, we decided to explore the old Arab city, to behold Bab al-Maghariba (also known as Dung Gate), and find out more about the place where once stood the Moroccan Quarter – which was given this name by the Ottomans because it housed so many pilgrims from North Africa.
The Palestinians we met among the stalls told us of an old Moroccan woman who refused to leave her home after Israeli forces took the city in 1967. She died buried in the rubble. Who was she? Which part of Morocco was she from? We were unable to find out.
We also went through Bab al-Maghariba, the only gate to Al-Aqsa controlled by the Israeli army. There, we met an old caretaker – a Moroccan man from the Zemrane Arab tribe, originally from the region around Marrakech. For centuries, he said, his people had sent young men to guard these Islamic holy sites. They would come back and be replaced after 10 or 15 years. But after the Six-Day War in June 1967, and the occupation of Jerusalem, this Zemrani found himself stuck inside a state that was officially at war with his own. The Zemrane could neither repatriate nor replace him, so he had remained, living in a small room given to him by the Islamic Waqf in the depths of Haram al-Sharif.
He devoured us with questions, speaking Darija – our Moroccan vernacular – hesitantly and with a strong oriental accent. Many of our new words were entirely foreign to him. He had been severed from his roots, his language, and the reality of his country for 31 years. His tribe had entirely forgotten him.
We had the polar opposite experience, albeit just as surprising, on our visit to the Knesset. After the obligatory passage through the security gate, two or three uniformed employees, who had previously checked us without a sound, emerged from their pillbox. They were suddenly all smiles and wanted to take us in their arms. “Brothers! Brothers!” they said.
They were Moroccan Jews from different provinces of the old Cherifian Empire and, unlike the old Zemrani caretaker, spoke perfect Darija thanks to their parents. No hesitation, no accent.
I wanted to ask them: “If we really are your brothers, why did you leave us? Did the Jewish Agency deceive you? Or did you want to be deceived?”
Many today like to proclaim that Jews and Muslims lived in harmony in Morocco for centuries. I beg to differ. They lived peacefully side by side only in the countryside and the mountains – and only because they were both facing the same poverty. In the cities, the Jews were confined to their mellahs (traditional Jewish quarters). They did not suffer from antisemitism – a somewhat Western and Christian concept – but rather from anti-Judaism, due to their condition as a religious outgrowth, their relative economic success and sometimes because they had a problematic tendency to side with foreigners, merchants, diplomats or soldiers, and to adopt their customs.
The emergence of the relatively contented Moroccan Jew only happened after the majority of their co-religionists had left. The state only started to pamper the remnants of the Jewish community in the ’70s. How many times did we hear the term hachakoum (“With all due respect”) when a Jewish name came up in conversations? Were we not systematically corrected when we talked about the death of a Jewish person? “He did not die, he rotted!”
As a boarder at a high school in the northern city of Meknes in the ’70s, I regularly heard how my fellow students relished the idea of going under the coffin of a Jew on the way to the cemetery, so their family would have to go back home and wash the body again. We would laugh – even I – not out of antisemitism but out of indifference, ignorance and the inability to see beyond our own certainties. In fact, as products of our patriarchal society, we would also mock gay people, effeminate men, the disabled, regional accents, the eating habits of the inhabitants of Fès, and more.
Jews and Muslims, living side by side in harmony? A myth.
Our conversations with Israeli parliamentarians would require an entire chapter. I will note only three attitudes, and three worlds. We would chat in the Knesset cafeteria with the lawmakers of Moroccan origin as if we were back home, while we talked philosophy and geopolitics calmly with Ashkenazi parliamentarians. The Arab members of the Knesset, meanwhile, gave us a courteous but rather cold welcome.
Our exchanges with the average Israeli citizen exposed us to two fundamental truths. The first was that Jewish Israelis did not fear in any way their secret services – both internal and external – which they saw as essential, and of which they were very proud. The baton and extrajudicial assassination were only the concern of others, namely the Palestinians. Back home, the mukhabarat was feared because its concern was not to protect the state or its citizens from enemies, but to repress everything that threatened the regime.
Israelis were also very proud of their army, and many remembered their military service fondly. We witnessed firsthand the humiliating and inhuman manner with which Israeli army goons treated Palestinians at their checkpoints. But it was a far cry from our Moroccan army, which, I confessed then with a little shame, was a militia at the service of only one man, Hassan II. He had joyfully pushed his officers to corruption to keep them occupied, rich, and discourage them from trying their luck at politics – a pursuit that had cost Morocco two coups (in 1971 and 1972), and a near-miss in 1983, only avoided after its promoter, Gen. Ahmed Dlimi, was assassinated.
If anyone wonders why the Arab armies never won a single war against the tiny Israeli state, I told the son of the Palestinian Authority’s representative in Rabat (who later became a dentist in Jerusalem’s Old City), here is the answer: Bloated, they spend their time plotting and doing business, killing each other when they’re not bloodily repressing their own populations – something at which they’ve become experts.
One day, an old black limousine finally took us to meet Netanyahu. The driver was a distracted young man who did not speak any of our languages and gave the impression of not knowing where to go. He got lost twice on hilly back roads and finally drove not toward the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem but toward Tel Aviv, on the coast, an hour away from the Holy City.
Tel Aviv, considered by many to be the opposite of the very devout Jerusalem, felt to me like a cheap ’60s Mediterranean resort town, with its decrepit, white low-rises built in a hurry. Its inhabitants, in shorts and shirts, reminded me of the summer tourists who criss-crossed our own cities.
We met Benjamin Netanyahu in a military barracks, probably Israel’s military headquarters. After the umpteenth rigorous security check, and among a plethora of uniformed officers and military salutes, we were led to a large room – home to an imposing photocopier. A bodyguard stood across from us, expressionless, a hand permanently resting on his gun.
Another surprise was waiting, courtesy perhaps of the Foreign Ministry. One of the official photographers, a funny guy with a gray beard, was an old Moroccan man who spoke Darija with the characteristic Marrakech accent. He had come as a child after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. He could speak our language as if he had never left the old country – except for those new words he could not have known, like our old caretaker from Al-Aqsa. Despite the long distance in time, he had not forgotten the idioms, swear words and joyful abuse of his country of origin.
An unassuming door leading onto a modest office opened and the prime minister of Israel emerged. One of the most protected humans on the planet worked from a badly lit room equipped only with a table, some chairs and a couple of bookshelves. It was a far cry from the impudent and flashy luxury that was the preserve of our leaders.
Netanyahu then, who saw no harm in being given the moniker “Bibi” by his fellow Israelis, was “full of beans.” He almost broke my fingers after capturing my right hand in a virile grip. He spoke English with a pronounced American accent, complimented by a charming smile.
There’s nothing much to say about the interview that has not already been published. Agile and crafty, Netanyahu avoided contentious subjects, refusing to comment, for example, on a rumored withdrawal from Lebanon. He repeatedly insisted on Israel’s wish to deepen relations with Morocco, its “old friend and ally.” We knew then, thanks to works published abroad but censored in Morocco, that Hassan II had allowed the Mossad to spy on his “brothers” – the heads of Arab states – during the 1965 Casablanca summit, which focused on the military situation in the Arab world and Palestine.
It was a massive favor, which was repaid just a month later after Israel’s secret service trapped then-head of the Moroccan opposition Mehdi Ben Barka in Paris, where he was abducted and assassinated by French and Moroccan criminals. Many of them were in turn later killed.
What we did not know at the time, and which has been uncovered since by Israeli journalists and historians, is that the Mossad also took care of Ben Barka’s remains, dissolving the corpse in acid and burying it in a park in the suburbs of Paris.
But we didn’t talk about Ben Barka, a pan-Arabist and good friend of André Chouraqui [an Israeli scholar and politician of Algerian descent who had also been a member of the French resistance], with Benjamin Netanyahu. To discuss that, we would have needed to speak to the Israeli prime minister at the time, Levi Eshkol, who died in 1969. Or the former head of the Mossad, Meir Amit, who two years later, in 2000, would grant me a telephone interview. It lasted a whopping five minutes because he was “leaving on a trip,” he said apologetically. Just enough time to deny everything.
‘We only have one enemy’
At the end of our meeting, after once again vigorously shaking my hand, Netanyahu told me: “You Moroccans and us Israelis, we have only one enemy – Islamism.” I asked the translator, an Israeli of French descent, to respond that we did not have the same view on things, and that although I was not what could be called a God-fearing Muslim, I did not think Moroccan Islamists – and even less those from foreign countries – were my enemies. A group with growing political power and, yes, sometimes menacing. But nothing more than a component of Arab society in these times of identity crisis, curtailed freedoms and tyranny.
If we had time, I would have also told Netanyahu that the biggest Islamist in Morocco was none other than Hassan II. A sovereign, the “Commander of the Faithful” who claimed direct descent from the prophet Mohammed, a holy man who had died 14 centuries previously – when the civil register did not exist. To show off to Westerners, he would sometimes call himself an “Islamic fundamentalist.”
He was, it must be said, a strange kind of fundamentalist, the satisfied proprietor of the biggest brewing company of alcoholic beverages in the kingdom – Brasseries du Maroc. I could have said all that but I held back, focusing instead on my journalistic work and attempting to sideline my personal opinions.
In the following days, the amicable and available Israeli diplomats who had welcomed us to the country attempted to take us to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. We politely refused; it was not the purpose of our visit. Interviewing the prime minister of the “Zionist entity” was heresy enough. We did not need to laden the boat with a touristic escapade on behalf of the Israeli propaganda machine.
We had also planned to interview the president of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat. We could have guessed the aging rais would refuse to meet us, and instead deferred us to Faisal al-Husseini, who has since died but was then a senior member of the PLO’s executive committee. We like to believe the Husseini family was originally from Morocco and a member of the Cherifian family – that is, direct descendents of the prophet Mohammed. No real proof was provided of the authenticity of this theory.
Husseini arranged to meet us for lunch in an apartment he used as an office outside the Old City. His pretty secretaries, who said they positively loved Morocco, sat us down in front of him in an improvised dining room, where employees busily milled around.
We were soon joined by other guests, most likely other members of the PLO. Husseini ignored us entirely and did not invite us to his table. He only granted us the interview after the conclusion of the meal, dessert, a flavorsome cup of coffee and a last chat with his guests. Some of them, who obviously felt sorry for us, threw us condescending looks from time to time.
It is likely we received this treatment in light of the tense relations between Arafat and Netanyahu. The former was possibly insulted that we had gone first to Netanyahu, before passing through the Palestinian Authority.
But there were other reasons. It’s a badly kept secret, but Palestinians have always taken a poor view of Moroccan leaders. They smiled at the “Commander of the Faithful” title, laughed when we brought up the hoax that is the Al-Quds Committee, chaired by the Moroccan king. Nevertheless, they held the Moroccan population in high regard.
For them, French-conversing journalists, speaking the language of the elite, were clearly members of the Moroccan establishment and representatives of Hassan II, a known friend of successive Israeli governments. Journalists coming from Morocco, via Israel, to talk to Arafat could only be spies.
I felt the animus personally when I went straight to Gaza to meet Arafat a year later, in 1999. Having pushed and pushed for the meeting, I was finally told in no uncertain terms by a middle manager in the PA’s communications department that, no, Yasser Arafat would not grant me an interview. For three minutes, the civil servant poured on me all the aggression and resentment he had built up over the years. For him, our leaders and journalists were just like the thousands of Moroccan prostitutes who walked the streets of the Gulf kingdoms. Sure, we were not sahhayina, Zionists, but because of our assumed links with the royal palace, we were working toward the Zionist ideal.
After collecting himself, the official calmed himself and went back to a manner befitting of his office. I might have agreed with a lot more of what he had to say had he spoken less vehemently.
In order not to return empty-handed, this episode eventually forced me to turn my attention to the PA’s poor human rights record in the Gaza Strip, and to speak to other people – opponents of the PLO, and the Islamists. I met one of the leaders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. In order to secure an interview with the latter, I once again had to go through a humiliating skewering at the hands of Ismail Haniyeh [the then-head of Yassin’s office], who also did not carry the Moroccan leadership in his heart.
When I came back to Morocco, I suffered through not just one but several hateful campaigns. None came from the regime, or its associated media. They were happy we had broken the old unspoken rule: don’t interview Zionists.
We were criticized by journalists, especially those with an agenda, by the Islamists and pan-Arabists, and by the general population. The only exceptions were the few, minuscule Berber militant groups, who not only advocated to normalize relations with Israel, but to drop Islam altogether.
Press releases by opposition parties and groups were followed by insults, death threats and the daily defacement of Le Journal’s posters. This went on for at least three weeks. I’m convinced someone urinated on my door; my building’s doorman refused to speak to me.
The nastiest blows came from members of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (known as PJD). Their official newspaper even wrote that Netanyahu had given me a car, which, they said, was at the Casablanca port. A car would have come in handy then, so I wrote to ask them for the exact location. It did not exactly dampen their mood.
Someone saw I had once studied at a primary school that belonged to the Jewish NGO Alliance Israélite Universelle. That was enough to convince them I had then been recruited by the Mossad – as a child.
And that wasn’t all. I can still hear the shopkeeper of the small store near my house in Rabat shouting: “Palestine is a sacred cause and no one will take it away from us.” I remember the time the conductor on the Casablanca-Rabat train, whom I knew from taking the line regularly, refused to validate my ticket.
I could not explain, even to those with whom I could discuss it, that the only “sacred cause” in Morocco was the one laid out by the king. It could change from one day to the next, according to his own self-interest. If the king decided to abandon the other “sacred cause,” Western Sahara, to save his throne, he would not hesitate for a second. All those who opposed the move would be eliminated by his all-powerful security forces.
I remarked that there already was, on Rabat’s Ben Barka Avenue, an Israeli liaison office, and that no one had dared attack it, or even stage a protest in front of it. More than that: Celebrities, politicians and businessmen were vying to be invited to the bureau chief’s residence for a reception. “A liaison office is not an embassy,” some would say misleadingly, to hide their shame. But it has the same privileges. A liaison office is a hypocritical and shameful way for a state to hide an embassy.
After Hassan II’s death, the new king, Mohammed VI, chose to close the liaison office, to protest Israel’s “intransigent attitude.” As if it was anything new. The bureau chief, who was given the nickname “Ghadi Golan” (“He’s going to the Golan”) by a humorist, organized a going-away party. Golan told me sadly that I had been the only Muslim to wish him farewell. On the guest list, apart from some Jewish personalities, royal adviser André Azoulay and the president of the Jewish community, Serge Berdugo, everyone had excused themselves.
All the usual suspects, ubiquitous when the liaison office was blessed with royal attention, had disappeared. Golan wondered: Why was the office being closed, and why had he been abandoned by his many Moroccan friends? I told him this was the reality here. When the king says “Yes,” the people say yes, and when he says “No,” they say no. If he says nothing, His Majesty’s dear subjects assume a waiting position.
I added that even the Islamists, if they were one day granted crumbs of power by the sovereign, would agree to pray toward Washington if the king so wished. Power is also a religion.
My interlocutor smiled and, in a moment of sincerity, he said the closure of the liaison office would not affect the “deep” nature of the excellent Israeli-Moroccan relations. As proof, he told me that Moroccan fighter jets were being repaired at an Israeli military airport, and that he was confident the two countries would one day exchange ambassadors.
Before saying a final goodbye, he asked me what I had made of my trip to Israel. I explained that, despite a few fleeting problems, I had never regretted going, that I thought his country was a miracle, that its founders had built a refuge for the Jewish Diaspora, that the Israelis had tamed nature, and managed to concoct a mix of people coming from the four corners of the globe.
To his great joy, I did say Israel was a democracy – but curbed his enthusiasm by saying it was only for Jews, not for Arabs, Christian or Muslim, or even those that chose to side with Israel like the Druze. Why did members of the Jewish community in India or the United States have more of a claim on a land than its original owner, the Arab native? Why would a Moroccan Jew of Berber origin, with whom I share a similar genetic makeup, and whose ancestors have nothing to do with Al-Aqsa (because they were actually Berbers who converted to Judaism), go and occupy someone else’s land in Palestine?
I talked about the existence of casual racism, which Palestinians and some Moroccan Jews had both reported, and my fear that Israel’s end would come from its very presence in the region. When you want to live among Arabs, and their solid dictatorships, you will always adopt some of the local customs. If Mr. Golan did not agree with my theories, at least he accepted them.
In my notebooks, I kept some intimate, emotional impressions from my trip that I never published. I found that despite the fact they now lived in a modern state turned westward, most of the Moroccan Jews I met had remained rather primitive – accustomed to the worship of marabouts, for example.
Unlike the rest of us, stuck in limbo, they had no excuse: Since 1948, they’d had plenty of time to adapt. It’s as if they had never left Morocco, I later told a German colleague. They had exchanged one ghetto for another.
I also found that they still adored Mohammed V and Hassan II – though their admiration could have been fake. Of the two monarchs, the first, despite later attempting to rewrite history, had definitely signed anti-Jewish royal edicts during World War II. The second had simply sold his Jewish subjects to the Jewish Agency for cash, which he hid in Swiss bank accounts. These are not journalistic rantings. They are historical facts, corroborated by the research of Israeli historians.
Twenty-two years on, Gadi Golan’s prediction has come true. Not only has Morocco reestablished diplomatic relations with Israel; a direct air link has now been opened between Casablanca and Tel Aviv. The two countries will, sooner or later, exchange ambassadors. They follow in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates. In 1998, I had been libeled by a Dubai TV station for having dared to interview Netanyahu. Today, the same man is now expected in the emirate for a “historic” visit.
The Islamists of the PJD, who had humiliated me in 1998, are now heading the Moroccan government. I note that their leader, Saad Dine El Otmani – who is also, theoretically at least, leader of the executive branch – has been catatonic since the December announcement by President Donald Trump of the tripartite agreement between the United States, Israel and Morocco. Only in August, he had stood firm against normalization. “King, government and the people” would refuse in unison normalization with the “Zionist entity,” he had shouted from the rooftops.
I must confess, I could not repress a smile when, on December 23, I saw the virulent anti-Zionist El Otmani forced to exhibit on official Moroccan television the tripartite agreement he had just signed with Jared Kushner, on behalf of the United States, and Meir Ben-Shabbat, the very official representative of the “Zionist entity.”