How much will Morocco's king help diplomatic process?
By JESSICA LEVING AND ALEX SORIN
Days after US President Barack Obama sent a letter to Morocco's King Muhammad VI urging the moderate North African nation to "be a leader in bridging gaps between Israel and the Arab world," international experts on Moroccan-Israeli relations differed on the likelihood of a positive response from Muhammad's government in the coming weeks.
"There is no doubt that Morocco will now send signals sooner than we think," Dr. Alon Ben-Meir, a senior fellow and Middle East expert at the World Policy Institute in New York, said on Wednesday. "And the Netanyahu government would be delighted if this would happen. Netanyahu wants to talk, wants to have relationship with the Arab states. Obama knows that Netanyahu is looking for a clear signal, and a tangible shift in Arab policy."
Morocco has historically maintained a constructive relationship with Israel, and is a prime candidate to take the lead in Arab-Israeli negotiations.
"Morocco was one of the first Arab countries that established contact with Israelis," Ben-Meir said. "King Hassan, the father of the current king, has met with every Israeli leader over the years. The tradition has continued to this day."
Sociology and anthropology professor Yoram Bilu of the Hebrew University agreed that Morocco's historical ties to Israel bode well for future relations, adding that Morocco was home to the largest Jewish community in the Middle East until the establishment of State of Israel.
"There was a very long history of peaceful coexistence between the [Muslim and Jewish] communities," Bilu said. "The balance was broken during the 20th century because of the French. The Jews were seen as pro-France during clashes between Moroccan nationalists and the French colonial regime. Until the '50s, the Jews were [considered] the oldest religious community in Morocco and were considered an integral part of the Moroccan community."
Even today, Jews living in Morocco are allowed to serve in the IDF, Bilu said. He estimated there are 6,000 Jews living in Morocco today, who hold a lot of political clout.
"They are many powerful, rich families," he said. "And they are represented in positions of power and are very close to the king. The king has traditionally always trusted his Jewish subjects throughout modern Moroccan history."
Dr. Daniel Zisenwine, a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at Tel Aviv University, offered a different perspective.
"The Moroccan government, certainly under King Muhammad's reign, has been cautious and reluctant to actively pursue or renew its open, public contacts with Israel," Zisenwine said.
"The Moroccan government is currently focused on domestic issues, and since Muhammad's succession to power in 1999, there has been a noticeable retreat from the active involvement in regional diplomacy which was certainly evident in his father's rule... Obama's letter is part of an American effort to revive that involvement. I don't see much enthusiasm on Morocco's part."
Zisenwine said Morocco already has strong ties to the United States and other Western nations, and does not really need the positive gains that contact with Israel would bring in the international arena.
"King Muhammad appears to be more cautious than his father was," Zisenwine said. "He doesn't appear to be the type of leader who is going to jump in the water and lead."
Though Zisenwine acknowledged Morocco's history of warm relations with the Jewish community, he also noted that Moroccans did stage solidarity rallies with the Palestinians during the recent Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza.
"The new generation in Morocco feels less of a connection to the Jewish community," he said. "Warm sentiments did exist, but they seem to be on the wane."
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