Nov 24, 2021 - World

Israel and Morocco sign defense deal

Picture of Benny Gantz shaking hands with Abdellatif Loudiyi
Benny Gantz (right) signs the agreement with Abdellatif Loudiyi. Photo: Ariel Hermony/Israeli Ministry of Defense

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz signed a defense cooperation agreement with Morocco on Wednesday during the first-ever public visit to the country by an Israeli defense minister.

Why it matters: Israel and Morocco had a secret defense, security and intelligence relationship for decades, but after establishing diplomatic relations, the countries are making it broader and more public.

  • A senior Israeli official tells me the Moroccans wanted to give Gantz’s visit a very high public profile to send a signal both to the U.S. and to Algeria.
  • The Biden administration has thus far signaled it has no intention of rolling back the dramatic step made by former President Donald Trump to secure the Israel-Morocco normalization deal: recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara.
  • But tensions are rising over that issue between Morocco and Algeria, which backs the Polisario Front that is fighting for an independent Western Sahara.

State of play: Relations between the North African rivals have gone from bad to worse since Algeria cut diplomatic ties with Morocco last August over alleged "hostile actions" from Rabat.

  • In early November, Algeria blamed Morocco for an airstrike on a truck convoy that traveled from Mauritania to Algeria through an area of Western Sahara controlled by the Polisario rebels. Three Algerians were killed.

Driving the news: Gantz landed in Morocco on Tuesday night. In addition to signing the defense agreement alongside his counterpart Abdellatif Loudiyi, he visited a paratrooper unit and met with senior Moroccan defense and intelligence officials, including the military chief of staff.

  • Gantz also met with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, who arrived back in Morocco on Wednesday after a visit to Washington in which he met with Secretary of State Tony Blinken.
  • State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Blinken and Bourita expressed strong support for the new UN envoy for Western Sahara and that Blinken considered Morocco's autonomy plan for the territory as "serious, credible and realistic."

What they're saying: While the Moroccans wanted to send signals to the U.S. and Algeria, "our message in this visit is strengthening the Abraham Accords and building a unified front in the region against Iran," the senior Israeli official said.

What to watch: The new defense cooperation agreement is expected to increase arms sales from Israel to Morocco. Israeli officials say they will focus mainly on defensive systems.

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