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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.

Go deeper

Jan 5, 2022 - World

U.S. sees "snapback" sanctions threat as tool to deter Iran enrichment

Jake Sullivan (R) with Tony Blinken. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/Pool via Getty

National security adviser Jake Sullivan told Israeli officials during his recent visit to Jerusalem that the threat of “snapback” UN Security Council sanctions should be used as a means to deter Iran from enriching weapons-grade uranium, three Israeli officials with direct knowledge of the issue told me.

Why it matters: Snapback was the most significant mechanism built into the 2015 deal to punish Iran if it violates the agreement. According to the deal, any party to the agreement can trigger the sanctions.

Jan 5, 2022 - World

Palestinians press Biden to take more active role in Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Abbas (right) meets Sullivan. Photo: Palestinian Presidency handout via Getty

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned national security advisor Jake Sullivan in their recent meeting that more active U.S. diplomatic engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is needed to avoid a new crisis in the region, Palestinian Minister for Civilian Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh tells Axios.

Why it matters: After a diplomatic deep freeze under the Trump administration, the Palestinian leadership hoped Biden would be much more active in rolling back Trump’s policies and taking steps to advance the two-state solution. So far, they've been disappointed.

Jan 5, 2022 - World

Scoop: Israel's military intel chief says Iran deal better than no deal

Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (center) hosts a Cabinet meeting. Photo: Ronen Zvulun/Pool via Getty Images

The head of Israeli military intelligence told ministers during a Security Cabinet meeting on Sunday that Israel will be better off if the Iran nuclear talks lead to a deal rather than collapsing without one, two Cabinet ministers who attended the meeting tell me.

Why it matters: While Israel campaigned vigorously against the 2015 nuclear deal, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett continues to take hawkish positions on diplomacy with Iran, the statements from Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva reflect a broader shift in the thinking of the Israeli defense establishment.

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