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ISRAEL: Officials find Morocco a tough room these days

October 31, 2010 |  9:51 pm

Hassan

Officially, diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel are "suspended," according to Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is the way things have been since 2000, when Morocco (along with Tunisia and Oman) closed "interest offices" opened only six years earlier, in better days.

Still, relations continue, quiet and generally fair. Besides the several thousand tourists every year and warm sentiments Israel's Moroccan Jews maintain still today, Israeli academics, journalists and sometimes politicians travel frequently enough to Morocco.

But this month, the Marrakech express was a pretty bumpy ride for Israeli officials.

President Shimon Peres canceled his planned trip to Morocco after being turned down by King Mohammed VI for a meeting. Peres, invited to Marrakech to be a keynote speaker at the World Economic Forum,  wanted a meeting with the king to advance the peace process. But word came from the king --  who is said to hold Peres in high regard -- that the Israeli president was welcome in Morocco but that the time for a high-profile meeting was wrong. Peres preferred to call off his trip altogether.

Next bumpy stop was Rabat, where the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean was convening. Among the Israeli delegation were Rueven Rivlin, speaker of Israel's parliament  and veteran politician, and Majalli Whbee, a Druze lawmaker from the opposition and among the country's most prominent minority politicians. Rivlin -- scheduled to meet Morocco's foreign minister and local chairman of parliament -- was surprised that all his meetings were canceled, but he was otherwise respectfully received.

Rivlin had intended to speak about cooperation and common challenges in the Mediterranean, "beyond politics and conflict" but changed his speech after the chairman of Morocco's Assembly of Representatives Abed el-Wahhab Radi spoke harshly of Israel's policies, according to media reports. "When the Palestinians are ready for peace, there will be peace," Rivlin said.

En route to Morocco, Rivlin met with Gerard Larcher, president of the French Senate. The settlements are not an obstacle to peace, Rivlin insisted, adding that the Palestinians were using settlement construction as an excuse to quit the peace talks.

The renewed settlement construction was an obstacle -- at least to the planned meeting between the president and the king, some say. Daniel Ben-Simon, a Moroccan-born Israeli lawmaker, said it was the planned construction in East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods announced mid-October that did the meeting in.

Meeting in France a few weeks ago, Ben-Simon had inquired of Andre Azoulay, veteran advisor to the royal house and Moroccan Jew himself, how relations were doing lately. In one word (and three syllables, les French way), he said, "catastrophe." The Israeli lawmaker said in a recent radio interview that this is worrisome, as Morocco is a seismograph for Israel's standing in the Arab world. Currently, it's pretty poor.

Rivlin did register a small success, however, in getting Israeli legislator Whbee elected as one of the vice chairman of the parliamentary assembly.  This took some persuading, especially considering the competition was Turkey, whose relations with Israel continue to worsen. Rivlin threatened Israel would quit the assembly if the Turkish representative was elected.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photo: Small monument in Kiryat Ekron, Israel, pays tribute to the late King of Morocco, Hassan II, noting his "contribution to peace in our region." Credit: Batsheva Sobelman

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