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Yair Lapid's Morocco visit has turned into a farce

Israeli foreign minister's trip highlights ambiguous position Moroccan Islamists are taking on normalisation with Israel
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is pictured during a press briefing with his Moroccan counterpart, in Rabat on 11 August, 2021 (AFP)

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid's visit to Morocco this week is not a historical event, since the kingdom normalised its relations with Israel back in December 2020. However, this high-profile visit has started to look like a national Moroccan farce, both silly and outlandish.

Though Othmani continues to claim support for the Palestinian struggle, he clearly does not have the courage to stand up to Israeli officials

Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine el-Othmani refused to meet the Israeli official, a decision that is hard to understand, especially since it was Othmani who, on 22 December 2020, signed the joint Moroccan-Israeli declaration that sealed the Abraham Accord and the normalisation with Israel.

The man who had been a champion of the Palestinian cause and who had, in August 2020, declared his rejection of "any normalisation with the Zionist entity", later justified his signing of the normalisation deal with Israel by invoking "the permanent support given by the government to King Mohammed VI in all the initiatives he launches in the supreme interest of the kingdom". 

What a poor alibi. 

A hypocritical stand

Othmani is the general secretary of the Islamic-democratic Justice and Development Party (PJD). Does his refusal to meet with Lapid signal that this "permanent support" for the king is crumbling? In Morocco, sarcasm abounds concerning the Islamist betrayal of the Palestinian cause.

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Another Islamist politician, Abdelilah Benkirane, former prime minister and former head of PJD, who never misses an opportunity to declare support for the policies of the corrupt Moroccan regime, has justified normalisation with Israel with a vague statement about "the superior interests of the state". 

He also justified the Pegasus scandal (the spyware is Israeli) in the name of national security.

Meanwhile, though Othmani continues to claim that he supports the Palestinian struggle, he clearly does not have the courage in this "blessed Kingdom", as the regime describes it, to counter or stand up to Israeli officials who meddle in Morocco's domestic affairs.

A case in point is David Govrin, the Israeli liaison bureau chief in Rabat. Last May, during Israel's war on Gaza, Govrin had no qualms venting in a slew of tweets, which he later deleted, about what he thinks of the Palestinians and their Moroccan allies. 

Strategic alliance

In strikingly undiplomatic style, Govrin even went as far as to blame Othmani for supporting and congratulating "the two terrorist organisations of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad". Supporting a "terrorist" group means one is also a terrorist. 

Lapid knows full well that in Morocco, the real power rests with the royal cabinet that takes all important decisions without consulting anybody

But instead of making it clear that it was Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel's prime minister, who was out of line - and that it was not Israel’s first interference in Morocco’s domestic affairs - Othmani remained silent. He knew he would not be supported by the palace - the real powers that be - which has definitively opted for a strategic alliance with Israel in anticipation of a troubled future.

One shivers at the thought of what would have happened if the ambassador of a European state like Spain had criticised a member of the Moroccan king’s government. Let’s not even talk about the Palestinian embassy in Rabat, which has made no reference, no allusion, no criticism whatsoever of the normalisation deal between Israel and Morocco.

For that reason, Othmani recently tried to prove he still had some remaining leverage by inviting Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s political bureau chief, to Rabat last June. This was a first, but no one was fooled and everybody knew that such a visit would never have happened without the prior consent of the Royal Palace, without which nothing can happen in Morocco.

Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine el-Othmani has come under criticism for signing a deal normalising relations with Israel (AFP)
Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine el-Othmani has come under criticism for signing a deal normalising relations with Israel (AFP)

The goal of that public relations effort was to save Othmani's reputation, given that he is now regarded as the chief of a government and political party deeply immersed in contradictions and compromises. But it was above all an attempt to perpetuate the illusion of the Al-Quds Committee, a body established in 1975 to bring together supporters of the Palestinian people across the Arab world, and which is chaired by the Moroccan king.

Some observers believe that the real motivation behind extending an invitation to Haniyeh to visit Rabat is to undermine the Turkish president’s possible ambition to either take over the committee's presidency or declare the committee irrelevant due to its uselessness and contradictions.

Haniyeh’s official visit to Morocco gave the Palestinians the opportunity to score points against Israel. But what did the Hamas leader really think when he was invited for dinner at the Royal Palace in the presence of the prime minister? Was he sincere when he declared his appreciation for "the Moroccan consensus on Palestine at all levels; royal, governmental, and popular, including political parties and movements?"

A strange 'consensus'

This is a strange consensus indeed given that a few days later, a leak in the Israeli press revealed that a Moroccan military plane had landed in Israel carrying members of the Royal Armed Forces (RAF), who participated in joint military exercises with Israel's army, which itself regularly opens fire on Palestinians - Haniyeh's brothers and sisters - as if it were hunting season.

States usually participate in such military exercises in order to test their forces and prepare against a common enemy. But who is this common enemy that could threaten both countries in that specific part of the world? Syria? Iran? Hezbollah

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Without a last-minute surprise, Yair Lapid will not meet with Othmani. And even if that happened, what would be the point of such a meeting?

Lapid knows full well that in Morocco the real power is not to be found in the government, which has its headquarters inside the Royal Palace itself, or in parliament, whose two formal chambers are empty shells. Rather, it rests with the royal cabinet, the regime's core, which makes all the important decisions without consulting anybody.

Lapid wants to consolidate the cooperation between the two countries in all domains: commercial, economic, financial, technological, and more. This includes national security issues, which was always a major focus of those secret Moroccan-Israeli relations before the normalisation deal.

As Lapid will most likely be invited to the palace, it will be interesting to see if he will occupy the same place Haniyeh occupied last June.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article has been translated and condensed from the MEE French edition.

Ali Lmrabet
Ali Lmrabet est un journaliste marocain, ancien grand reporter au quotidien espagnol El Mundo, pour lequel il travaille toujours comme correspondant au Maghreb. Interdit d’exercer sa profession de journaliste par le pouvoir marocain, il collabore actuellement avec des médias espagnols. Vous pouvez le suivre sur Twitter : @alilmrabet.