Farewell to a Friend

Israel had good reason to remember King Hassan II of Morocco as “a friend and a statesman,” and not just because of his tireless efforts to build bridges between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors.

Secret cooperation between the Moroccan and Israeli intelligence services began in 1961 under King Hassan’s father, Mohammed V, who allowed Moroccan Jews to emigrate to Israel. The younger monarch broadened and institutionalized the contacts after Meir Amit, the then-head of the Mossad, Israel’s CIA, clandestinely met Hassan in Marrakech in 1964. Undercover contacts continued, with only two brief interruptions, until Hassan’s death last Friday.

Local and foreign reports this week revealed just how deep the mutually beneficial relationship went. The Mossad provided technical assistance and training for its Moroccan sister organization, as well as information on dissidents plotting to assassinate the young king.

Yossi Melman, co-author of a study of Israeli intelligence, disclosed in Ha’aretz that the Mossad also relayed sensitive material on the subversive intentions of Egypt’s revolutionary leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Morocco’s North African neighbor.

According to Oded Granot, a writer on Arab affairs in Ma’ariv, the Mossad delivered more than 100 light tanks to Morocco in the 1960s to strengthen Hassan in his conflict with Algeria over the Spanish Sahara. These were apparently smuggled into Morocco via a third country.

The first cooling came in 1965, when the Mossad’s hand was revealed in the murder of one of Hassan’s political foes, Mahdi Ben-Barqa. Israel, apparently, helped track him but did not kill him. The two sides distanced themselves from each other, but cooperation soon resumed.

Morocco supplied Israel with valuable intelligence data about joint Arab military planning before the 1967 Six-Day War. Relations soured again after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Morocco infuriated Israelis by sending a token brigade to Syria as a gesture of Arab solidarity.

But three years later, Yitzhak Rabin became the first Israeli prime minister to pay a clandestine visit to Morocco. Rabin, disguised in a Beatles-style wig and rising-executive glasses, explored with the king the prospects for peace with Egypt and Jordan.

After Menachem Begin’s right-wing Likud came to power in 1977, Hassan hosted discreet talks between Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Anwar Sadat’s special envoy, Hassan Tohami. Dayan, who slipped in from France, wore dark glasses instead of his trademark eye patch. The dialogue persuaded the Egyptian president to fly to Jerusalem and paved a way toward the 1979 peace treaty, the first between Israel and an Arab state.

Although Israel and Morocco have still not established full diplomatic relations, the king openly hosted two Labor prime ministers — Rabin and Shimon Peres — in the 1990s (Hassan confided to Peres that he had a Jewish wet nurse, named Simha). Their successor, Ehud Barak, was to have stopped over in Morocco on his way home from Washington last week, but postponed the visit.

Barak was no stranger to the king. As a 37-year-old colonel, he was one of a delegation of Israeli military and intelligence officers who flew to Marrakech in 1979 to congratulate him on his 50th birthday. As Shimon Peres’ Foreign Minister, Barak returned on an official visit in 1996.

Both men were included in a large delegation, headed by President Ezer Weizman, which represented Israel at Hassan’s funeral last Sunday. Foreign Minister David Levy was revisiting Rabat, the city of his birth, for the first time since migrating to Israel as a 17-year-old, 42 years ago.

To President Clinton’s disappointment, Syria’s President Hafez Assad stayed away — apparently because he did not want to be cajoled into what, for him, would have been a premature encounter with Barak.

Israeli leaders did, however, have what they hailed as a historic meeting with another radical Arab leader, President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika of Algeria. “We place great hope in your peace plans,” Bouteflika said during a seven-minute conversation in front of television cameras. “We are willing to help you in your efforts whenever you ask. We support peace.”

Assad apart, Barak is rapidly becoming the Arab world’s flavor of the month. As well as talking to the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians, the ebullient Israeli prime minister clasped hands with Saudi princes, the president of Yemen, representatives of Bahrain, Qatar and other Gulf emirates. Weizman, according to one report, had to be restrained from approaching the Lebanese Hezbollah militia delegation.

But Algeria’s Bouteflika was the prize catch. Algeria, which waged an epic war of independence against French colonialism, remains a potent symbol of the Arab national struggle. Bouteflika himself is a veteran of the FLN liberation movement. “If Bouteflika can talk to Israel,” said Israel Television’s Middle East expert, Ehud Ya’ari, “anyone can.”

Moroccan Jews Mourn Death of King Hassan

The death of Morocco’s King Hassan II made tens of thousands of Israelis mourn for the man they consider “their” king — and homesick for the land their families left.

Young Israelis of Moroccan origin placed the Moroccan flag on top of their cars, while others displayed huge posters in their homes of the late king, who died last Friday of a heart attack at the age of 70.

The Moroccan Jewish community in Israel declared a seven-day period of mourning for the king.

While reaction from Israel’s leadership was perhaps less dramatic, it was just as heartfelt — as a delegation led by Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Prime Minister Ehud Barak joined 30 world leaders, including President Clinton and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, in remembering a man who played a vital role in bridging the gap between the Jewish state and the Arab world.

When it came to the king’s death, the reaction of Israel’s estimated 300,000 Moroccan Jews appeared similar to Morocco’s Arab residents, many of whom consider the king to be a direct descendent of the Muslim prophet Mohammed.

“I know that it may sound ridiculous,” said Haim Shiran, 64, director of Inbal, an ethnic center in Tel Aviv, “but when, on Friday, I saw the Moroccan announcer on television announcing the death of the king, I broke out in tears.”

When King Hassan II took power in 1961 after the death of his father, Mohammed V, he was an unknown quantity with a reputation as a playboy. But ruling with a deft mixture of pro-Western democracy and traditional autocracy, he earned the respect of his people.

Hassan is being succeeded by his son Mohammed, 36. — Gil Sedan, JTA