Not Just NSO: Israel and Morocco Cybersecurity Ties Grow Closer

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Moroccan and Israeli flags are displayed in the Moroccan Foreign Ministry during an official visit by the Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to Rabat, Morocco. August 2021
Moroccan and Israeli flags are displayed in the Moroccan Foreign Ministry during an official visit by the Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to Rabat, Morocco. August 2021Credit: Mosa'ab Elshamy,AP

For a month now, Israeli cybersecurity teams and their counterparts in Morocco have been cooperating in the field of defensive cyber operations, the result of an agreement signed between the countries in early July. 

The Israeli and Moroccan sides are exchanging information about cybersecurity threats and hacking attempts. At this stage, Israeli teams aren’t expected to travel to Morocco to help build any defensive infrastructures - though that could happen in the event of a focused attack that would require it.

Some of the discussions between the sides touch on the defensive technologies Israel uses. “When they ask our opinion on products, we recommend what works well and don’t hesitate to not recommend something when necessary. Since the signing of the agreement, there has been a marked increase in contacts and discussions between the countries,” a senior government official said Tuesday, in reference to moves by private Israeli companies in Morocco. 

On Thursday, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid embarked on the second day of his trip to Morocco and attend the opening of a liaison office between the two countries. For the Moroccan government, cooperation in the cybersecurity field is an essential part of the warming relations. 

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, left, and his Moroccan counterpart, Nasser Bourita, exchanging signed cooperation agreements in Rabat on Wednesday. Credit: Mosa'ab Elshamy / AP

Accordingly, the country’s defense minister Abdellatif Loudiyi, gave his blessing to an agreement signed in Rabat last month between Yigal Unna, the director of the Israeli cyber directorate, and his Moroccan counterpart, Gen. El Mostafa Rabii.

The agreement is important to Israel as well. In an address delivered by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during Israel Cyber Week, just before the agreement was signed, he addressed the need to form international alliances in the field. 

File photo of a Saudi Aramco engineer in a central control room. Saudi Arabia’s state oil giant acknowledged that leaked data from the company is now being used as part of a cyber-extortion attempt.Credit: Amr Nabil,AP

“We already have an indication that Morocco’s level in the field isn’t all that bad,” said that same senior government official. “Morocco is no chump in the cyber field, and we have an interest in working with it.”

Only days after the agreement was signed, the Project Pegasus investigation to which Haaretz was also party revealed that one of the telephone numbers belonging to French President Emmanuel Macron had been marked as a possible surveillance target by Moroccan intelligence. According to Le Monde, who made the revelation, the security agency had used the Pegasus software made by Israel firm NSO

French president Emmanuel Macron in Brussels, last monthCredit: John Thys / AP

According to senior officials involved in the agreements between Israel and Morocco, the issue was not discussed: “They aren’t concerned, they rely on us. In the end, our cyber system deals with defense,” said another official. 

Agrotech 

The two countries are also working together in agriculture. Agriculture Minister Oded Forer’s office said that the Agriculture Ministry is holding professional discussions with counterparts in Morocco in fields of applied research and water management in agriculture, and that the discussions are focused on growing crops in a desert climate. 

According to Forer, the plan is to focus on solutions in areas connected to aquaculture, like growing tuna and algae for food, along with the pharma industry and the export of Israeli agricultural technology. The Agriculture Ministry is working to place an agricultural attaché in the Israeli liaison office that is to be opened when Lapid visits. 

Business executives active in Morocco said they have been getting inquiries from food producers there looking to export their products to Israel. “The Moroccans want to sell us everything, whether it is avocados, sardines or dried tomatoes,” the same senior official said.

One major industry that was supposed to benefit from warming relations but has suffered a blow in recent weeks is tourism. The launching of direct flights between Israel and Morocco has been stymied several times because of the difficulty in coordinating security arrangements due to Morocco’s coronavirus restrictions. Uncertainty over whether Morocco will be included in the list of red countries has led to a wave of flight cancellations. If a month ago Israeli airlines had hoped to send 20 flights a week to Morocco, at the moment there are only two flights a week and they aren’t full.

At the same time, granting visas to the citizens of both countries has become more complicated. The fear of being swamped by migrant workers from Morocco led Israel’s Foreign Ministry to insist that anyone planning to visit be interviewed. The Moroccan authorities, naturally, countered by making a similar demand of potential Israeli visitors.

An Israeli tourist check his phone upon arrival at the Marrakech-Menara International Airport on the first direct commercial flight between Israel and Morocco, on June 25, 2021.Credit: FADEL SENNA - AFP

Interested businessmen

The degree of interest Israeli businessmen are showing in Morocco is evident in the number of industrialists and merchants who plan to attend a gathering Thursday sponsored by the Israel-Morocco Chamber of Commerce.

Among those invited are businessman Eitan Stibbe, who has been involved in defense deals in Africa and is now involved in civilian projects on that continent; Eli Elezra, chairman of Hachshara Insurance and the Albar leasing company; Mordechai Elgrabli, chairman of Rekah Pharmaceuticals and hotel developer Yoav Igra.

“This bureau was established together with a parallel bureau in Morocco,” the chairman of the new chamber of commerce, Yehuda Lankri, said this week.

“It aims to conduct discussions with Moroccan colleagues on exchanging delegations and holding conferences on agriculture, water, renewable energy, security, cybersecurity, health sciences and innovative technologies. They have high expectations of Israeli high-tech in the fields of defense and data security, and they are very interested in the field of tourism. Before the coronavirus, 70,000 Israeli tourists visited Morocco annually, and now the goal of the Moroccan tourism minister is for 200,000 Israeli tourists a year.”

The Israeli government is also optimistic about bilateral relations. “Morocco is much more connected to Judaism and Jews than any other country in the Arab world, and we are not a foreign element to them,” said a senior government official who recently returned from a visit.

“The fact that Moroccans are dominant in Israel is a source of pride to them; it is mentioned at every meeting and at all levels. The fact that the head of the National Security Council, Meir Ben Shabbat, for example, speaks their language and lives their culture, constitutes for them a victory for Moroccan culture, and the fact that we are embracing the connection is a catalyst for cooperation between the parties.”

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