The first direct commercial flight between Israel and Morocco took off from Tel Aviv on Tuesday, in a symbolic trip after the countries reached a US-brokered deal to normalise ties.
The El Al flight with US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner and Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben Shabbat on board was headed to Rabat, where Moroccan and Israeli officials were due to sign a series of agreements.
The trip aims to showcase the achievements of the Trump administration in Middle East diplomacy, weeks before Trump is replaced at the White House by President-elect Joe Biden.
Morocco became the third Arab state this year, after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, to normalise ties with Israel under US-brokered deals, while Sudan has pledged to follow suit.
Speaking at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport before departure, Kushner stressed that the UAE-Israel deal had already created commercial opportunities for both countries.
“My hope is that this flight today to Morocco will create the same amount of momentum,” between Morocco and Israel, he said.
As part of the Morocco-Israel deal, Trump fulfilled a decades-old goal of Morocco by backing its contested sovereignty in Western Sahara.
The move infuriated the Algerian-backed pro-independence Polisario Front, which controls about one fifth of the desert territory that was once a Spanish colony.
Negotiations leading to Morocco’s resumption of ties with Israel included an agreement to open a US consulate in Western Sahara, and US investment pledges which Moroccan media described as “colossal”.
At the same time Israel and Morocco are due to reopen diplomatic offices and activate economic cooperation between them.
Morocco closed its liaison office in Tel Aviv in 2000, at the start of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
King Mohammed VI has said Morocco will remain an advocate for the Palestinians.
But the Palestinians — like the Polisario — have cried foul and condemned the normalisation announcement between Rabat and the Jewish state.
Morocco has sought to temper the anger by insisting that relations with Israel are not new.
“The new agreement is merely the formalisation of a de facto partnership between Morocco and Israel dating back 60 years,” said Moroccan media boss Ahmed Charai.
In a commentary this month in the Jerusalem Post, he said the two countries had a “shared history”, adding that he was “overcome with pride and gratitude” when the deal was announced.
“The two states have assisted each other vitally for decades,” Charai wrote, pointing to intelligence and security cooperation that helped Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and “quiet Moroccan diplomacy” that helped foster peace between Egypt and Israel.
Morocco is home to North Africa’s largest Jewish community, which dates back to ancient times and grew with the arrival of Jews expelled from Spain by Catholic kings from 1492.
It reached about 250,000 in the late 1940s, 10 percent of the national population, but many Jews left after the creation of Israel in 1948.
About 3,000 Jews remain in Morocco, while Israel is home to 700,000 Jews of Moroccan origin.
Although bilateral ties were suspended in 2000, trade has continued and amounted to $149 million between 2014 and 2017, according to Moroccan newspapers.
Kushner said Israel’s recent string of normalisation deals marked a step towards a more “normal” co-existence between Jews and Muslims.
“The state we have lived in for the last 75 years, where Jews and Muslims have been separated, is not a natural state,” he said before the flight.
“For hundreds and thousands of years Jews and Muslims in this region have been living and being together, and I think that what we have seen now is a restoration of that norm.”
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