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In the Maghreb, normalization with Israel remains distant

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Representatives of Israel and Morocco greet each other before signing an agreement at the Royal Palace in the Moroccan capital Rabat on December 22, 2020. (Photo: Twitter/X)
The recent uproar over a botched meeting between Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and his now-fired Libyan counterpart, Najla Mangoush, highlights the complications surrounding normalization attempts in the Maghreb.اضافة اعلان

Disclosure of the August meeting, which was supposed to remain secret, provoked an outcry in Libya, leading Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah to distance himself from the encounter by describing it as a personal initiative by Mangoush.

But the prime minister’s defense – ignorance – is highly implausible. No Arab foreign minister, regardless of their margin of maneuver, can meet with a senior Israeli official without a green light from the highest levels of government.

What raised even more doubts about the premier’s denials is that political figures from both sides of the Libyan divide have allegedly pursued undercover contacts with Israeli officials for years, reportedly with encouragement from the United States.

Dbeibah miscalculated, either by presuming that the Israelis would keep the news of the meeting under wraps, or in believing he could control angry reactions from the public. He was wrong on both counts – a “strategic mistake” of the highest order. In a splintered political landscape rife with enmities, Dbeibah set himself up for political ambush with little or nothing to gain.

Amid growing calls for a new Libyan government, Dbeibah seems to have been driven by desperation for international legitimacy, as he sought to win favor with the US and other Western powers by moving closer to Israel. This was only matched by the craving of the Israeli government for good news amid a bleak domestic landscape and by Washington’s desire to extend the Abraham Accords beyond Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates before the 2024 US election.

Because of widely-shared public distrust over normalization with Israel, contacts with the Israeli government have long been conducted in secret, creating a chasm between governments and their populations over the issue.

Some of the highest rates of anti-normalization sentiment are registered in the Maghreb. No less than 99 percent of the public in Algeria and Mauritania, 96 percent in Libya and 90 percent in Tunisia oppose recognizing Israel, according to the 2022 Arab Opinion Index. Moroccan public opinion is more receptive to normalization but still opposes it by a 67 percent margin. 

This trend is coupled with a perception of the Palestinian issue as a pan-Arab cause, a view shared by 89 percent of Algerians and Mauritanians, 86 percent of Tunisians, 85 percent of Libyans and 59 percent of Moroccans.

There are variations on these trends in other surveys, but most results are similar. The one exception is the latest Arab Youth Survey, which put support for normalization at 50 percent in Morocco and 31 percent in Algeria

Politicians in the Maghreb normally know the risks involved in ignoring their public’s opinion.  “The latest incident with Libya highlights the price that might be paid for such an agreement and the weight of the Palestinian issue on the decision-making process,” said Michael Harari, a former senior Israeli diplomat and policy fellow at Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.
The latest incident with Libya highlights the price that might be paid for such an agreement and the weight of the Palestinian issue on the decision-making process
Furthermore, ties to Israel are entangled in the Maghreb’s regional politics. While Algeria has considered normalization a national security threat, Morocco pursued it to its full extent with its approach buttressed by the legitimizing authority of the king and the strategic dividends it received in return.

It didn’t help Algerian-Moroccan relations that normalization between Morocco and Israel, formalized in December 2020, was premised on US recognition of the kingdom’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony annexed by Morocco in 1975.

While the diplomatic thaw between Israel and Rabat cleared the way for multifaceted cooperation, including in military and security areas, it was perceived as a casus belli by Algiers. Then, last July, Israel formally recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed territory; Algeria called the move “illegal.”

The issue has also cast a long shadow over Tunisian-Algerian relations, despite the long-standing opposition of Tunisian President Kais Saied to any notion of normalization.

Algeria has always been wary of Tunisia joining the normalization track, a concern that was revived during the July 2022 Senate confirmation hearing for the US ambassador to Tunis, Joey R Hood. Hood’s pledge to “support further efforts to normalize diplomatic and economic relations with the State of Israel in the region” fueled conjecture about an hypothetical US transactional offer that would push cash-strapped Tunisia to join the Abraham Accords.

Abdelkader Bengrina, the leader of Algeria’s Islamist El Bina party, suddenly fueled such concerns last month, by predicting, with little evidence, that Tunisia would recognize Israel “very soon.” The speculation has since been refuted by Tunisia and Algeria.

But every surge of rumors seems to lead to new barriers to normalization attempts in the region, such as Libyan and Tunisian parliaments considering new initiatives to criminalize ties to Israel.

Outside the Moroccan exception, normalization isn’t a priority issue in the Maghreb. The region’s governments don’t see enough transactional incentives that would make normalization with Israel worth the risk. The only certainty is that a strong pro-Palestinian sentiment on the region’s streets remains a factor too compelling for leaders to ignore.

Oussama Romdhani is the editor of The Arab Weekly. He previously served in the Tunisian government and as a diplomat in Washington.

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