Morocco and Israel are mulling a resumption of diplomatic relations, which were severed by the Arab kingdom after the outbreak of the intifada.
After resuming public meetings and contacts with Israeli officials in recent weeks, King Mohammed VI of Morocco told American Jewish communal leaders in New York last week that he was considering re-establishing the low-level diplomatic liaison that had existed until three years ago.
The king met with Israel’s foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, in the Moroccan capital of Rabat and in New York during the past month and has been speaking on the phone with Prime Minister Sharon. All these contacts were reported in Moroccan government-controlled media, a signal that observers believe could signal an upcoming shift in policy toward Israel.
“He said he wants to enhance the relation between Israel and Morocco, to increase the level of trade and communication and to re-establish diplomatic relations soon,” said the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, who attended the meeting between Shalom and the king at New York’s Plaza Hotel. From 1994 to 2000, Israel and Morocco maintained interest sections in each others’ capitals.
Foxman added that Morocco and its king, who chairs the Jerusalem committee of the international Organization of the Islamic Conference, could play a useful role in reviving the peace process if the country resumes diplomatic relations with Israel.
“The relationship has come out of the closet, and I believe Morocco can play a role, especially on Jerusalem,” he said. “But we first need a significant diplomatic relationship if they want to play a significant diplomatic role.”
André Azoulay, a Jewish senior adviser to the king, and Serge Berdugo, the leader of the main Moroccan Jewish communal organization, both confirmed that such discussions to re-establish relations with Israel were ongoing and that the king had committed himself to playing a more active diplomatic role in trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But all three said that no firm decision to restore relations had been made.
“The king told the American Jewish leaders he was ready to take risks for peace,” said Berdugo, secretary-general of the leadership council of the Moroccan Jewish community.
Azoulay said Morocco was very worried about the collapse of the peace process and was in a unique position to revive it.
“I don’t know many Arab countries that have legitimacy both in Tel Aviv and Gaza,” he said. “We met Israelis and Palestinians, and we want to convince them that they are headed in the wrong direction and that we have to look for an alternative.”
Both Azoulay and Berdugo said that because of Morocco’s unique status as an Arab country with a Jewish community numbering several thousand living in harmony, the country could play an important role as an interlocutor between Israelis and Palestinians.
But they also acknowledge that the three years of intifada and the eruption of Islamic terrorism are seriously endangering the survival of their model of peaceful coexistence.
On May 16, five bombs exploded simultaneously in Casablanca, killing 42. Three of the targets were explicitly Jewish — a communal center, a cemetery and a restaurant — although no Jews died.
However, last month two Moroccan Jews were murdered. Although one was apparently slain for purely criminal reasons, the other one, Albert Rebibo, was targeted because of his religious identity. Two attackers gunned him down in Casablanca on September 11, a date investigators and Jewish leaders believe was chosen for obvious symbolic reasons.
“May 16 was our September 11,” Berdugo said. “It was a break with the past and the emergence of international terrorism in Morocco.”
Still, he insisted that the attacks had a larger target than Morocco’s small Jewish community.
“They are against the Moroccan regime, a moderate, democratic and multicultural state,” Berdugo said. “If you aim at Jews, you destabilize the regime.”
He and Azoulay stressed that the community, while rattled and scared by the events, was nevertheless confident that the authorities would be able to protect Morocco’s Jews.
The bombings prompted a crackdown on Islamic extremists in the kingdom. The authorities arrested some 700 suspects in their investigation into the bombings and handed down many stiff sentences in relation to the case in recent weeks. In addition, security has been beefed up at Jewish sites around the kingdom.
Moreover, Berdugo and Azoulay point to a large demonstration on May 29, when approximately 1,000 Jews took part in a million-strong demonstration against the terrorist attacks during which participants held signs saying “Jews citizens, Wahhabis assassins.”
“This is not an ocean of Arabs versus a tiny Jewish community,” Berdugo insisted.
But American and European Jewish communal leaders are worried.
“We have major concerns about the safety of the Moroccan Jewish community, and we believe they need a much closer embrace from Morocco,” the ADL’s Foxman said. “This is not business as usual. The world has changed, so the king needs to take some public gestures to reach out to the Jews…. The king said he would consider it, that he was ready to take risks and maintain the Moroccan model.”
Azoulay explained that the model was undermined by the daily events in the Middle East.
“Being a Jew in Morocco in 2003 is not the same thing as being a Jew in New York, Paris or Madrid,” he said. “I am living in a spiritual, political and cultural universe that wakes up every day listening to what is happening in the Arab world, especially in Palestine and in Iraq. And I can’t escape that.”
This helps explain why Moroccan Jewish leaders have often taken a position in favor of a Palestinian state and have continued to meet with representatives of the Palestinian Authority since the outbreak of the intifada.
Berdugo blasted the Jewish Agency for Israel for encouraging Moroccan Jews to leave the country in the aftermath of the May 16 attacks.
“We don’t need people to tell us we have to go,” he said, noting that there had been very few departures. “We are the only Arab country with a vibrant Jewish community, and we believe we have to preserve that small Chanukah light. Many people would like us to leave, but we are asking our Jewish friends around the world to understand we are attached to Morocco.” The Jewish Agency could not be reached for comment.
Foxman agreed that it would be tragic to see the community disappear. However, he added, “we should not be blinded, and the reality is that they are vulnerable.”
When asked about the danger of radical Islamists in Morocco, a threat that the Moroccan government and its Jewish communal leadership had long downplayed, Azoulay and Berdugo acknowledged that the threat should not be ignored.
“There is no denying that even if the attacks were planned abroad, there was a strong domestic dimension,” Azoulay said. “But I believe this is marginal and that it doesn’t represent the country.”
The vast majority of Morocco’s Jews left the country between 1948 and 1967, moving mostly to Israel and to France. The country’s remaining Jews — estimated at approximately 5,000 by their community’s leaders and at 3,000 by the Jewish Agency — enjoy equal rights and have demonstrated their profound loyalty to the monarchy.
Azoulay cited his unique position as an adviser to the king as an illustration of the progressive nature of the regime.
While he admitted that he had received death threats in public and in private, he said he had also been swamped with messages of solidarity.
“My family arrived in Morocco before Islam. So I am not a stranger; I am not a Jew serving strangers,” he said. “So I come out of this more determined, and I don’t want anyone to take away my Morocco.”