The New-Old Relationship: Israel, Morocco Celebrate a Year of Normalization

People to people relationships between Moroccans and Israelis have been there all along
December 13, 2021
Ambassador of Morocco to the United States Princess Lalla Joumala and Israel’s Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog hosted a celebration to mark the one-year anniversary of normalization between the Kingdom of Morocco and the State of Israel at the Watergate Hotel in Washington on December 9, 2021. (Shmulik Almani via Ambassador Michael Herzog/Twitter)

(The Media Line) “The people and the food are both spicy,” the new Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Herzog, observed while celebrating what he called the “new-old relationship” between Israel and Morocco and noting that what draws the two peoples together is more important than what might separate them.

Herzog and Ambassador of Morocco to the United States Princess Lalla Joumala on Thursday night hosted a celebration to mark the one-year anniversary of normalization between the Kingdom of Morocco and the State of Israel. The guest list for the event at the Watergate Hotel in Washington featured a pair of US congressmen, a high-ranking State Department official and a number of notables from both the Israeli and Moroccan Jewish communities.

“The relations between the Jewish people and Morocco are ancient, unique and noteworthy. Generations of Jews have found refuge all over Morocco at various points over the last few thousand years. Together, we can advance our shared vision for a peaceful, thriving and stable region. I strongly believe that the relations between us, as well as the relations between Jews and Muslims at large, could make a significant contribution in this respect. They could become a game changer in many critical areas such as health care, climate change, food security, high tech and so much more,” said Herzog.

Joumalla, who apologized profusely for needing to leave the event early due to an illness, told the audience: “The seeds of peace planted over the past year are already starting to bear fruit, impacting positively the lives of peoples in the region. It is hard not to be filled with optimism for the future when looking at the enthusiasm and impulse the trilateral agreement and the Abraham Accords have generated. Collectively, we need to relentlessly work to ensure that the achievements of the past year are widened and deeply rooted at the human level.”

The event had a distinctly Moroccan flair, down to the traditional music from an authentic Moroccan band. An Israeli and a Moroccan chef worked on the menu and, as can be expected when Israelis and Moroccans come together, the event started 30 minutes late. The participants were busy celebrating what they say is a development with no real downside.

“The initial reaction in the Moroccan media to normalization efforts was mixed, but also very excited. Everyone is now looking forward to taking this to another level, after seeing the economic results. Now, we want to see the full fruit of this relationship,” Mohammad Hammam, a freelance Moroccan television journalist, told The Media Line.

A number of attendees said that while many good things have come from open relations between Israel and Morocco, one of the better consequences is that the world can see that the people-to-people relations were there all along.

“First of all, this is an historic event, and I’m so proud to be here. I hope and wish that every other Arab country will follow suit and know there is nothing better in the world than living in peace,” Rabbi Gad Bouskila, the head of the Moroccan Jewish community in New York, told The Media Line.

The rabbi was born and grew up in Morocco. “I grew up with many Muslim friends and we have been living like brothers, like family. The only thing that this normalization has brought is to legitimize two countries that, per se, were not allowed to be together. But they knew that we traveled to Israel, they knew we had family in Israel and there was never a problem,” he said.

The event on Thursday and the celebratory remarks were bipartisan, with a number of Democrats, including those who have long pushed for prioritizing the Israel-Palestinian political settlement process as the key to a full regional peace, hailing what has come of the Abraham Accords thus far. Democratic Reps. Steve Cohen of Tennessee and Ted Deutsch of Florida both attended the event.

“This is wonderful, this is a real symbol of the relationship that’s blossoming right now. Clearly, we know that Israel and Morocco for many years had warm ties behind the scenes, but to see this in the open really warms up the heart,” Joel Rubin, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Barack Obama administration and founded the political division of the left-wing J Street organization, told The Media Line.

“It helps the United States, it helps Israel, it helps Morocco, it helps the region. It’s the kind of event that we really want to see built upon to further relations between Israel and the Arab world,” Rubin said.

Others noted that the Palestinian issue has not gone away, and the recent normalization developments should be used to advance the goal of Israel-Palestinian peace, rather than to minimize it further.

“This is a wonderful occurrence, and not just normalization, but a warm embrace which sets the tone for the region and sets the tone for the positive future for all of the people from Morocco through Israel and North Africa and throughout the Middle East. It is a great celebration for all those in the United States who care so deeply about Israel and Morocco,” Robert Wexler, a former Democratic congressman and current president of the Washington-based S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told The Media Line.

“The US can cement it, expand it and bring the Palestinians into the process, so that Israel continues to benefit, Arab nations continue to benefit, the region benefits. But it’s also essential that the Palestinian people benefit, so that we can begin to lay the foundation for improving conditions for Israelis and Palestinians and narrowing the political divide between Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” said Wexler.

While the celebration took place, Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz was across town, meeting with US officials about coordinating the next steps on the Iran file, with nuclear negotiations between Washington and Tehran appearing to hit a dead end. It was noted by more than one attendee of Thursday night’s event that a main impetus behind Israeli normalization efforts is the urgency in forming a regional coalition to contain Iran – a country whose relations with Morocco are almost non-existent after Morocco cut ties with the Islamic Republic most recently in 2018.

“I think a lot of the countries in the Middle East are concerned about the Islamic Republic of Iran. This regime in Tehran continues to exert its influence throughout the region. While we are here celebrating peace between the Kingdom of Morocco and Israel, the regime in Tehran will do everything it possibly can to pour cold water on this peace. They don’t want to see countries coming together in the Middle East and they don’t want to see countries recognizing the State of Israel,” Bryan Leib, executive director of Iranian Americans for Liberty, told The Media Line.

Both Herzog and Joumala noted the significant number of sectors, including trade and industry, in which partnerships between their two countries are rapidly accelerating, in what seems to be a self-propelling growth. Still, Yael Lempert, acting US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, the highest-ranking Biden administration official at the event, noted that normalization efforts will continue to be backed by the State Department. The White House has thus far largely maintained the policy of the preceding administration to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara, a controversial move critical to pushing Morocco forward toward normalization efforts.

While most who spoke thanked and appreciated the efforts by various US government entities, the bulk of the focus was on the bilateral relationship between Israel and Morocco, the “new-old” relationship that everyone seemed proud was now out in the open, and others wondering what took it so long to happen.

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