Israel FM makes first visit to Morocco since ties normalised

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s visit is the first by a top Israeli diplomat since relations were upgraded in December last year.

Leading a ministerial delegation, Lapid will inaugurate Israel's diplomatic mission in Rabat [Emmanuel Dunand/AFP]

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has left for Morocco in what will be the first visit by Israel’s top diplomat since the two countries upgraded ties last year.

Israel and Morocco agreed in December to resume diplomatic relations and re-launch direct flights under a deal brokered by former US President Donald Trump.

As part of the agreement, Washington also recognised Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, where there has been a decades-old territorial dispute with Morocco pitted against the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, a movement that seeks to establish an independent state in the territory.

Leading a ministerial delegation, Lapid will inaugurate Israel’s diplomatic mission in Rabat, visit Casablanca’s historic Temple Beth-El and hold talks with his Moroccan counterpart, Nasser Bourita, Lapid’s office said.

“This historic visit is a continuation of the long-standing friendship and deep roots and traditions that the Jewish community in Morocco, and the large community of Israelis with origins in Morocco, have,” Lapid said ahead of the two-day visit.

Morocco was one of four Arab countries – along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan – to agree to normalise ties with Israel last year under US-brokered deals.

Palestinians have been critical of the normalisation deals, saying Arab countries have set back the cause of peace by abandoning a longstanding demand that Israel returns occupied land for a Palestinian state before it can receive recognition.

The announcement in December had sparked uproar in Morocco, where several protests were held to denounce the move.

In May, thousands of Moroccans marched in cities across the country to denounce the 11-day Israeli bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip, with the ruling Justice and Development Party demanding the closure of Israel’s liaison office.

US President Joe Biden has said he wants to build on Israel’s new relations, which Lapid has prioritised since taking office in June as part of a cross-partisan coalition that replaced longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Just five weeks ago, Lapid made a landmark first visit by an Israeli foreign minister to the UAE, where he touted Israel’s ties with the Gulf Arab state and highlighted concerns over their mutual foe Iran.

Two Israeli carriers launched nonstop commercial flights to Marrakesh from Tel Aviv last month, but hopes for a broader tourism bonanza have been delayed by a spike of COVID-19 cases in both countries.

Meanwhile, Lapid wrote on Twitter: “Taking off for a historic visit to Morocco!”, while posting a photo of the El Al airline departures screen.

The North African country hosts the Arab world’s largest Jewish community of some 3,000 people.

They are what remains of a once much larger community. Some 700,000 Jews of Moroccan descent now live in Israel.

Morocco and Israel maintained liaison offices in the 1990s, before closing them during the second Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, which lasted five years from 2000.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies