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Israel’s top diplomat makes first visit to Morocco since upgrade in ties

FILE PHOTO: Israeli foreign minister visits UAE
FILE PHOTO: Israeli alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks during a news conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Christopher Pike/File Photo

August 11, 2021

By Rami Ayyub

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid departed for Morocco on Wednesday in what will be the first visit by Israel’s top diplomat since the two countries upgraded ties last year.

Israel and Morocco agreed in December to resume diplomatic relations and re-launch direct flights under a deal brokered by former U.S. President Donald Trump in which Washington also recognised Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Leading a ministerial delegation, Lapid will inaugurate Israel’s diplomatic mission in Rabat, visit Casablanca’s historic Temple Beth-El and hold talks with his Moroccan counterpart, Nasser Bourita, Lapid’s office said.

“This historic visit is a continuation of the long-standing friendship and deep roots and traditions that the Jewish community in Morocco, and the large community of Israelis with origins in Morocco, have,” Lapid said ahead of the two-day visit.

Morocco was one of four Arab countries – along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan – to move towards normalising ties with Israel last year under U.S.-brokered deals.

Those accords angered Palestinians who have long relied on Arab support in their quest for statehood in Israeli-occupied territory.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said he wants to build on Israel’s new relations, which Lapid has prioritised since taking office in June as part of a cross-partisan coalition that replaced longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Just five weeks ago, Lapid made a landmark first visit by an Israeli foreign minister to the UAE, where he touted Israel’s ties with the Gulf Arab state and highlighted concerns over their mutual foe Iran.

Two Israeli carriers launched nonstop commercial flights to Marrakesh from Tel Aviv last month, but hopes for a broader tourism bonanza have been delayed by a spike of COVID-19 cases in both countries.

Morocco was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the region until Israel’s founding in 1948. As Jews fled or were expelled from many Arab countries, an estimated quarter of a million left Morocco for Israel from 1948 to 1964.

Today only about 3,000 Jews remain in Morocco, while hundreds of thousands of Israelis claim some Moroccan ancestry.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Additional reporting by Ahmed Eljechtimi in Rabat; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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