Lapid inaugurates Israeli mission in Morocco as Herzog invites king to visit
At a small ceremony limited by COVID-19 restrictions, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid inaugurated Israel’s Liaison Office in Morocco’s capital Thursday morning, following last year’s agreement to reestablish ties after two decades.
Lapid was joined by Welfare Minister Meir Cohen, Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee head Ram Ben Barak and Charge D’affaires David Govrin.
Morocco was represented at the ceremony by deputy foreign minister Mohcine Jazouli, with the country’s top diplomat Nasser Bourita not present.
Israeli diplomatic sources told The Times of Israel that Bourita’s absence should not be seen as a snub, but rather an attempt to show that relations with Israel are routine and normal and do not demand high-level representation at every ceremony.
Israeli diplomats have been living and working out of a Rabat hotel. The new diplomatic office will be replaced when Israel finishes renovating the building that housed Israel’s diplomatic mission in Morocco until ties were suspended with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000.
The foreign minister was due to spend time in Casablanca with the local Jewish community and pray at the Beth-El Synagogue there before returning with the Israeli delegation Thursday night.
In a sign that relations were progressing, President Isaac Herzog on Thursday invited Morocco’s King Mohammed VI to visit Israel.
Herzog’s letter to the king was relayed by Lapid.
“Your majesty, I would welcome the opportunity to meet with you in the near future,” the letter reads. “We are committed to deepening the strength of our relations and I hope that they further expand and flourish over time.”
He also congratulated the king on the occasion of his Throne Day.
On Wednesday evening, Lapid and Bourita signed three framework agreements that covered political consultation between the ministries; cooperation in culture, youth, and sports; and air service between the countries.
The signing ceremony took place after the two sat together for a private meeting that stretched well beyond the allotted time, a possible sign that there is personal chemistry between the ministers.
“I am sure there are at least ten more agreements in the pipelines,” Bourita predicted.
Lapid is in Morocco for the first official visit by an Israeli top diplomat since 2003 and the highest-level trip since an agreement was signed by Jerusalem and Rabat last year to reestablish ties after some two decades.
The trip is the fruit of a US-brokered deal for Morocco to resume ties with Israel, which were cut off in 2000 following the outbreak of the Second Intifada. Though the countries are not establishing full ties, Israeli officials have said they expect Rabat to eventually upgrade the relationship and establish embassies.
“This historic visit is a continuation of the longstanding 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 in a statement, referring to the million-plus Israelis of Moroccan heritage, many of whom regularly visit the North African country.
“It will be a moment for political and economic activity, and we will continue to work toward agreements that will bring innovation and opportunity to our countries,” he said.
David Levy visited Morocco as foreign minister in December 1999. In 2003, then-foreign minister Silvan Shalom made an official visit in an unsuccessful bid to convince Rabat to resume diplomatic relations.
Despite the lack of official ties in the intervening years, Israel and Morocco maintained a quiet relationship in the arms trade sector and Morocco continued to allow Israelis to visit, albeit only as part of organized groups.
The first direct commercial flights between Israel and Morocco took off in July, seven months after the countries agreed to normalize and open reciprocal diplomatic offices, but not embassies.
An Israeli diplomatic source said last month that the ties with the North African kingdom “will turn into full diplomatic relations.”
Experts say the trip will give Lapid an opportunity to improve not only bilateral ties but also Israel’s regional standing.
“An emphasis on regional and multi-regional opportunities offered by improved Israel-Morocco relations could help upgrade ties into full ambassadorial-level diplomatic relations and inject new substance into the developing ties,” said Nimrod Goren, president of Mitvim-The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.
“The normalization with Morocco has already assisted Israel recently in reclaiming an observer status in the African Union, and it could lead to enhanced Israeli impact in the Mediterranean, promote joint Israel-Morocco participation in heavily funded EU programs, support high-level Israeli-Palestinian policy dialogue channels, and enable Israeli companies to be part of Moroccan-Emirati business cooperation,” he said.
In July, Lapid invited Bourita, his Moroccan counterpart, to visit Israel.
“After my trip to Morocco, Minister Bourita will come to visit Israel to open missions here,” Lapid said at a Yesh Atid faction meeting in the Knesset at the time.
Also last month, a Moroccan air force plane touched down in Israel’s Hatzor Air Base, reportedly to take part in a multinational Israeli Air Force exercise.
The agreement with Morocco came as part of a wave of diplomatic agreements between Israel and Arab states, including the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. In late June, Lapid made a historic trip to the United Arab Emirates to open the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi and the consulate in Dubai.