Monday, September 07, 2009


Bruce Maddy-Weitzman *

This article is based on a paper presented at the June 8-9, 2009 conference entitled "Israel and the Arab States: Parallel Interests, Relations, and Strategies," jointly held in Jerusalem by the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. The article presents an overview of Israeli-Maghrebi relations since Israel's establishment. It also discusses cooperation with Israel in various spheres and ideas on how to further promote this. Israel’s relations with the three core Maghreb states--Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia--have been shaped by a combination of factors: the region’s French colonial legacy and distance from the historical cross-currents of Arab nationalism and from the Arab-Israeli conflict, geopolitical exigencies, the state-building enterprises within the three Maghreb entities and the competition between them, and the particular status of their respective Jewish communities. The Madrid-Oslo years were marked by major breakthroughs at the formal, aboveboard level of relations with Morocco and Tunisia, and even witnessed positive developments in the Algerian realm. With the second intifada, these achievements were rolled back. However, the existence of continued parallel interests, and the emergence of new ones in recent years--the common need to combat radical Islamist movements and the expansion of Iranian influence, and to maintain and further develop close economic and political ties with the West--has ensured that Maghreb doors have not been entirely shut to Israel, and created possibilities for expanded links. The degree to which these will come to fruition in the coming months and years depends on a host of factors, not the least of which is progress in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere.

Of course, the nature of each Maghreb state’s relations with Israel, or lack thereof, is unique, regarding both historical background and contemporary possibilities. Still, a closer look at the three countries also reveals some common themes.


Both Morocco and Tunisia were firmly ensconced in the Western camp during the Cold War. In regional terms, this meant that during the 1960s, they were in the conservative Arab camp and generally on the defensive against the radical pan-Arabist current embodied in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and the pan-Arab Ba'th Party. Within the Maghreb, this placed them opposite of revolutionary socialist Algeria. Hence, both Rabat and Tunis had numerous parallel interests with Israel and pursued varying degrees of quiet cooperation.

Morocco, in particular, had overlapping interests with Israel. From Jerusalem’s perspective, its links with Rabat constituted an extension of its “periphery” policy, the cultivation of non-Arab actors on the Middle East periphery to counterbalance the pressure of radical, hostile Arab states. For Morocco, ensuring its positive image in the West necessitated cooperation with Israel in the early 1960s to allow for the orderly flow of Moroccan Jews out of the country and to Israel; on the level of internal and regional security, Israel played an important supportive role for the regime of King Hassan. Beginning in the mid-1970s, Morocco played a facilitating role in the Arab-Israeli peace process, with leading members of the Moroccan Jewish community both in-country and in the Israeli and French Moroccan Jewish Diaspora. Notable in this regard were the hosting of the secret Dayan-Tuhami meeting, which paved the way for Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, the shepherding of the 1982 Fez Arab Summit resolutions, and King Hassan’s hosting of Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres in 1986. In 1993, Hassan would also receive Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his entourage on their way back from the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn.

Tunisia under President Habib Bourguiba was openly combative toward Nasser during the 1960s. Its Jewish community was able to leave the country more easily than Morocco’s, and Bourguiba even had the audacity in 1965 to suggest that the Arab world accept the UN’s 1947 partition of Palestine plan. By the 1980s, however, with Bourguiba’s fading and ultimate removal from power (1987), Tunisia had tacked more strongly toward involvement in Arab affairs (e.g., hosting the PLO and Arab League headquarters), thus bringing its position on Israel more into line with the Arab consensus. In addition, nothing much would be left of the Jewish community after 1967, and unlike Morocco, the Tunisian authorities would not nurture a favorable image/myth of Jewish-Arab comity in the past.

Algeria, on the other hand, wholeheartedly embraced the “Palestine Revolution” after 1967, viewing the Fatah-led PLO as being kindred spirits to their own “war of liberation” against French colonialism. Algerian Jews, on the other hand, were viewed as having been inalterably on the side of the French during the war for independence, a fact “confirmed” by their mass departure in 1961-1962 along with the bulk of the European settler community. Algiers in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a preferred destination for hijackers of Western and Israeli airlines and supporter of Palestinian guerrilla organizations. The regime’s legitimating formula and its bitter struggle with Morocco over the Western Sahara ensured that Algeria would be firmly located in the radical Arab camp, and in opposition to the Sadat initiative.


The collapse of the Eastern Bloc (home of Algeria’s traditional patrons), the earthquake of the 1991 Gulf War and--most importantly--Algeria’s democratic explosion (1989-1991) followed by the bitter and bloody battle between the military and a violent Islamist insurgency, beginning in 1992, altered the regime’s calculations. Its overall world view and particular understanding of its interests were now brought more into line with Algeria’s Maghreb neighbors, including issues regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. All three states were symbolically represented at the Madrid Arab-Israeli peace conference in October 1991 by the secretary-general of the Arab Maghreb Union, to which they belonged. The Algerian regime would take some tentative steps to open up a dialogue with Israel, particularly at the end of the 1990s, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak publicly shook hands with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (at the funeral of Morocco’s King Hassan). An officially sanctioned delegation of Algerian journalists even visited Israel, causing considerable controversy at home. The Algerian position on the Arab-Israeli conflict was now essentially in line with the Arab consensus favoring a diplomatic solution. Still, a broad portion of both the Algerian elite and Algeria’s Islamist current remained strongly identified with the Palestinian cause and hostile to Israel.

Morocco and Tunisia, for their part, established formal low-level diplomatic ties with Israel in 1994-1995, following the mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO. The enthusiasm in Israel and hope for expanded links with North African states was palpable. This came to be expressed in October 1994, when Morocco hosted the first MENA economic summit in Casablanca. However, the high-profile gathering is best remembered for Israel demonstrating excessive eagerness to promote economic normalization and thus leaving the impression that it somehow was seeking to dominate the region economically. Unlike the Moroccans, the Tunisians were quite reluctant to establish formal diplomatic links and did so only at the prodding of the Americans. Tunisia refused to host the 5th MENA economic summit in 1999, further indicating its desire to downplay formal links with Israel.


Following the outbreak of the second intifada in late September 2000, Morocco and Tunisia closed their diplomatic offices in Tel Aviv and...
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*Dr. Bruce Maddy-Weitzman is the Marcia Israel Senior Fellow in Maghreb Studies, The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University.

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