Israeli envoy in Morocco to cement ties, talk Mideast peace

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Israel’s foreign minister opened a two-day visit to Morocco on Wednesday to seal ties with the North African country less than a year after agreeing to normalize relations. The two nations quickly took concrete steps, signing off on three accords, with more expected.

However, peace prospects in the Middle East nudged their way into the talks, with Yair Lapid’s Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita stressing a need for the “rapid return of direct and serious negotiations” between Israel and the Palestinians.

Lapid’s visit is the first to the country by an Israeli minister since 2003, and the first such meeting in Morocco since the U.S.-brokered “Abraham Accords” with four Arab states: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

Both ministers emphasized the age-old heritage of Jews in Israel linked to the kingdom of Morocco. Lapid’s two-day trip will be capped on Thursday by the inauguration of Israel’s liaison mission in Rabat, the capital.

Bourita said the goal is to “resume contacts on a regular basis within the framework of peaceful, friendly and normal diplomatic relations.”

However, prospects for a Middle East peace agreement were also on Morocco’s agenda, with Bourita saying that King Mohamed VI “has stressed the need to break the stalemate” and restart negotiations toward a comprehensive solution.

That includes “a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, living side by side with a state of Israel,” he said.

“Today, there is an urgent need to start measures to rebuild trust between all parties in the service of peace, stability and prosperity in the region, while maintaining calm and refraining from anything that might exacerbate tension,” Bourita said. He said negotiations must “eventually lead to a solution based on the two-state solution.”

The topic was not mentioned in Lapid’s statement, which dwelled on the Jewish heritage in Morocco and what he said was the hope that the normalization of relations with Morocco holds for the wider world.

The Abraham Accords shook up the region by upending the long-held belief that Israel could not normalize relations with the broader Arab world without progress in resolving its decades-old conflict with the Palestinians. The Palestinians have rejected the agreements.

Critics say it is impossible to ignore the Palestinian issue — as evidenced by the 11-day war between Hamas and Israel in May and the deadly violence it triggered in the occupied West Bank and Israel itself.

Israel and Morocco signed an air service agreement and another agreement to cooperate in the fields of culture, sports and youth.

They also signed a memorandum of understanding on the establishment of a political consultation mechanism between their countries’ foreign ministries, which appeared to fit into the wider design of the face-to-face diplomacy during Lapid’s visit.

A statement from the Israeli foreign minister said the agreements “will bring our countries innovation and opportunities for the benefit of our children — and their children — for years to come.”

Israel and Morocco are teaching children about “the power of hope” in a world “that has shrunk,” Lapid’s statement said. Lapid is slated to become prime minister in 2023 under Israel’s eight-party coalition government.

State Department spokesman Ned Price speaking to reporters in Washington congratulated the two countries. “We believe that normalized relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors create new opportunities for peace and prosperity to flourish in the region,” he said.

Israel and Morocco share a long history of formal and informal ties. Many Israelis have lineage that traces back to Morocco, which is still home to a small community of several thousand Jews.

Israeli Minister of Labor and Welfare Meir Cohen, part of the delegation, was born in Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast. “For him this is a homecoming,” Lapid said in his statement, and in the future, Israelis “will not travel here as tourists, they will travel as family, to explore their heritage and their memories.”

Israel and Morocco had low-level diplomatic relations in the 1990s, but Morocco cut them off after the second Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000. The two countries maintained informal ties, with thousands of Israelis traveling to Morocco each year.

As part of the deal to establish formal ties with Israel, the United States agreed to recognize Morocco’s claim over the long-disputed Western Sahara region, though the Biden administration has said it will review that decision. Morocco’s 1975 annexation of Western Sahara is not recognized by the United Nations.

The visit comes as Israel shows off other evidence of the accords moving forward. A senior Bahraini official is visiting Israel this week, where he met with an Israeli general and other officials.

Sheikh Abdulla bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, the undersecretary for political affairs in Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry, attended a signing ceremony Wednesday for a partnership between Israel’s Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy and the Gulf country’s Derasat think tank.

“A year ago, there was nothing between our two countries. Today, we have come a very long way,” the sheikh said. “We can confidently say that we have a solid foundation to develop these bilateral ties.”

Israel and Gulf countries had been quietly improving relations for years as they came to view Iran as a shared threat.

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Associated Press writers Josef Federman and Laurie Kellman in Jerusalem and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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