RABAT – Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz signed on Wednesday a defense memorandum with his Moroccan counterpart, Abdellatif Loudiyi, on the first day of his two-day visit to the North African kingdom meant to bolster defense ties between the two countries.
Gantz landed in Morocco on Tuesday, in the first such visit by an Israeli defense minister to one of the four Arab nations party to the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords. After signing the memorandum at Morocco's defense ministry, Gantz also met with Lt. Gen. Belkhir El Farouk, inspector general of the Moroccan armed forces.
Departing for Rabat on Tuesday, Gantz told reporters he was embarking on "the first formal visit" by an Israeli defense minister to Morocco – implicit acknowledgement of discreet relations dating back decades.
The ministers agreed to formalize security cooperation in a memorandum of understanding that lays out plans to establish a joint committee in order to deepen cooperation across areas such as intelligence sharing, research and joint military training.
It does not stipulate specific deals, but allows for Israeli defense firms to do business with Morocco.
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The agreement, Gantz said, "is a very significant thing that would let us exchange opinions, facilitate joint projects and enable Israeli exports."
Ahead of his meeting with Loudiyi, Gantz paid his respects at the tomb of Mohamed V, the grandfather of the reigning monarch.
A defense official said Wednesday that Israel's ties to Morocco are not based on weapons sales. "Israel does not depend on any other country to preserve its security, but any alliance can help us in intelligence sharing and building our ties in the region," the official said.
Zohar Palti, head of the Defense Ministry's Political-Security Bureau, called the visit unprecedented and "one of the peak [achievements] of the Abraham Accords." He said Morocco had "over the years accepted Jews, protected them and maintained their tradition," and noted that Rabat "has been fighting terror on a number of fronts over the years." The agreement between the countries "will allow us to cooperate in training, in information – this is an agreement that will allow us to assist them in what they need from us, subject to our interests in the region, of course," Palti said.
One of the reasons Morocco is heavily publicizing the visit involves the country that is seen as its biggest and immediate rival, Algeria. Algeria is supported by Russia, which has been providing Algiers with advanced weaponry and systems that could pose a threat to Morocco.
Tensions between Morocco and Algeria have reached new heights recently, and include a break off of diplomatic relations on the part of Algeria – and the firing by the Moroccan army on a vehicle convoy, in which three Algerians were killed. The conflict between the two countries stems from Algeria’s support for the Polisario Front fighting for independence from Morocco in Western Sahara.
In 1976, the Polisario declared independence for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, but neither this declaration of independence – or Moroccan control of the territory – received widespread international recognition. During Donald Trump’s term as U.S. president, Washington recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. One of the conditions set by the United States for this was a renewal and strengthening of the relations between Morocco and Israel.
Israel has now begun ascertaining Morocco's security needs. A Moroccan military delegation recently took a tour of Israeli arms production facilities, and Israel's intelligence agencies are studying the Western Sahara conflict. Although Iran and Hezbollah have a presence in the area, Israeli intelligence had thus far paid little attention to the conflict, as it had no direct consequence for Israel. But now the two countries have agreed to form joint working teams to share information and keep Israel aware of Morocco's defense needs.
Another worry for Rabat is the ramifications of instability in Libya, Sudan and Afghanistan. The lack of stability in those countries may prompt a wave of immigration to Europe using Morocco as a point of departure. Morocco's fear is that such a wave of immigration could be exploited by radical Islamist groups seeking to commit attacks in Europe and destabilize Morocco itself.
Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan signed agreements to normalize relations with Israel in 2020 as part of the diplomatic pacts brokered by the Trump administration known as the Abraham Accords.
Israel and Morocco enjoyed low-level diplomatic relations in the 1990s, but Morocco severed them after the Second Intifada erupted in 2000. Despite that, the two states have maintained informal relations. Nearly half a million Israelis claim Moroccan heritage — more than 200,000 immigrated to Israel after the founding of the state in 1948 — and thousands visit the country each year.
Morocco is still home to a small Jewish community, and Rabat has one remaining synagogue.
Reuters contributed to this report.