Israel signs defense pact with Morocco, as cooperation with new Arab partners builds

By Ahmed Eljechtimi

RABAT (Reuters) – Israel signed a defense pact with Morocco on Wednesday, its latest public display of readiness to advance national security interests in tandem with Arab countries that have drawn closer to it amid shared concern over Iran and Islamist militancy.

The memorandum of understanding could herald intelligence cooperation, arms deals and joint military training, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in Rabat.

His two-day visit came within weeks of an Israeli-hosted air force drill that was attended by an Emirati general, and naval maneuvers by Israel, UAE and Bahrain. The two Gulf states, along with Morocco and Sudan, forged relations with Israel last year.

After the signing ceremony with Abdellatif Loudiyi, Morocco’s defense administration minister, a senior Gantz aide said he saw a Moroccan market for Israeli counter-insurgency know-how.

“This is a deal that will enable us to help them with what they need from us, of course subject to our interests in the region,” the aide, Zohar Palti, told Israel’s Kan broadcaster.

“Morocco has for years been battling terror on several fronts, and is a country that is struggling against al Qaeda and global jihadi groups.”

Rabat had no immediate comment on Wednesday’s agreement. Its Royal Armed Forces said the countries previously signed an memorandum on cyber cooperation and data security – the latter a possible preamble to purchases of high-end Israeli military technologies.

Israeli media have speculated about possible sales to Morocco of pilotless aircraft or missile defense systems.

The chief of Israel’s air force, Major-General Amikam Norkin, declined to discuss any such specific prospects at a conference on Tuesday, saying only that he favored “airpower diplomacy” with Arab partners to help offset Iran’s clout.

“I think that this (Gantz visit to Rabat) is an opportunity,” Norkin said, recalling how, at this month’s Dubai Airshow, his Moroccan counterpart had come to introduce himself and “added a few sentences in Hebrew” when they conversed.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid travelled to Morocco in August for the first visit by Israel’s top diplomat to that country since 2003.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Alex Richardson and Alistair Bell)

Blinken: U.S. will help foster further Israeli ties with Arab states

By Matt Spetalnick and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged on Friday to encourage more Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel as he hosted a virtual meeting with Israeli and Arab counterparts to mark the first anniversary of a set of landmark diplomatic agreements.

The event – held with Blinken’s counterparts from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco – was the Biden administration’s highest-profile embrace of the so-called Abraham Accords, which were widely seen as a diplomatic success for Republican former President Donald Trump.

Democratic President Joe Biden has backed the deals since taking office in January, and senior aides have said they want more Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel after decades of enmity. But the administration until now had been cool to the idea of commemorating the anniversary of the accords.

On Friday, however, Blinken hailed their diplomatic and economic benefits, saying: “This administration will continue to build on the successful efforts of the last administration to keep normalization marching forward.”

He said the Biden administration would help foster Israel’s growing ties with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco – as well as Sudan, which also reached a breakthrough with Israel last year – and would work to deepen Israel’s relationships with Egypt and Jordan, which have long-standing peace deals.

And Blinken said Washington would encourage more countries to follow their lead. “We want to widen the circle of peaceful diplomacy,” he said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid agreed, saying: “This Abraham Accords club is open to new members as well.”

The leaders of Israel, the UAE and Bahrain signed the accords at the White House last September. Israel and Sudan announced in the following month that they would normalize relations, and Morocco established diplomatic ties with Israel in December, after Biden defeated Trump in the U.S. election.

Palestinian officials said they felt betrayed by their Arab brethren for reaching deals with Israel without first demanding progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state.

Some critics said Trump had promoted Arab rapprochement with Israel while ignoring Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

But Blinken, who has sought to repair ties with the Palestinians badly damaged under Trump, said: “We all must build on these relationships and growing normalization to make tangible improvements in the lives of Palestinians, and to make progress toward the long-standing goal of advancing negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Humeyra Pamuk and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Israel, Morocco to upgrade ties and open embassies, Israeli FM says

RABAT (Reuters) – Israel and Morocco plan to upgrade their restored diplomatic relations and open embassies within several months, Israel’s foreign minister said during a visit to the North African kingdom on Thursday.

Morocco was one of four Arab countries – along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan – to move towards normalizing relations with Israel last year under U.S.-engineered accords.

Those agreements also saw Washington recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, in a diplomatic boon for Rabat.

“We are going to upgrade from liaison offices to embassies,” Yair Lapid told a news conference.

In similar comments to Israeli reporters accompanying him on a two-day trip that began on Wednesday, Lapid was quoted as saying that he had agreed with his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita that the embassies would open in two months’ time.

There was no immediate confirmation of Lapid’s remarks by Morocco.

Lapid’s visit was the first by an Israeli foreign minister to Morocco since 2003, after the two countries agreed in December to resume diplomatic relations under a U.S.-brokered deal.

Earlier on Thursday, Lapid inaugurated Israel’s liaison office in Rabat and visited a synagogue in Casablanca.

The deals between Israel and the four Arab states angered Palestinians, who have long relied on Arab support in their quest for statehood in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. Until last year, only two Arab states – Egypt and Jordan – had forged full ties with Israel.

Morocco cooled mid-level relations with Israel in 2000 in solidarity with the Palestinians, who launched an uprising that year.

(Reporting by Ahmed Eljechtimi; Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Gareth Jones)

In a first under Biden, detainee transferred out of Guantanamo Bay

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden’s administration said on Monday that it had transferred its first detainee from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, a Moroccan man imprisoned since 2002, lowering the population at the facility to 39.

Abdul Latif Nasir, 56, was repatriated to Morocco.

Set up to house foreign suspects following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the prison came to symbolize the excesses of the U.S. “war on terror” because of harsh interrogation methods critics said amounted to torture.

While former President Donald Trump kept the prison open during his four years in the White House, Biden has vowed to close it, a promise White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated on Monday.

Nasir had been cleared for release in 2016 during the Obama administration before Trump took office. Most of the prisoners left at Guantanamo Bay have been held for nearly two decades without being charged or tried.

“The (Biden) administration is dedicated to following a deliberate and thorough process focused on responsibly reducing the detainee population of the Guantanamo facility while also safeguarding the security of the United States and its allies,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

Morocco’s general prosecutor said in a statement that Nasir would be investigated for suspected involvement in terrorist acts, and a police source said he had been taken into custody in Casablanca.

More than a dozen Moroccans have been held at Guantanamo Bay and those repatriated have faced investigation and trial. One, Ibrahim Benchekroun, was jailed for six years after being repatriated in 2005 and died in 2014 in Syria where he had traveled to join a militant group.

A senior U.S. administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that of the remaining detainees at the prison, 10 are already eligible for transfer.

Advocacy groups welcomed the move but said more needed to be done.

“The Biden administration urgently needs to negotiate and implement similar decisions for other cleared prisoners,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project.

“Bringing an end to two decades of unjust and abusive military detention of Muslim men at Guantanamo is a human rights obligation and a national security necessity,” Shamsi said.

Opened under Republican President George W. Bush, the prison’s population peaked at about 800 inmates before it started to shrink. President Barack Obama, a Democrat like Biden, whittled down the number, but his effort to close the prison was stymied largely by Republican opposition in Congress.

The federal government is barred by law from transferring any inmates to prisons on the U.S. mainland. Even with Democrats controlling Congress now, Biden has majorities so slim that he would struggle to secure legislative changes because some Democrats might also oppose them.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month that the administration was actively looking into recreating the position of a State Department envoy for the closure of the prison at the Guantanamo Bay naval base.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali, additional reporting by Ahmed Eljechtimi in Rabat and Daphne Psaledakis in Washington; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Howard Goller)

Spain vows to restore order after thousands swim into Ceuta from Morocco

By Jon Nazca and Mariano Valladolid

CEUTA, Spain (Reuters) -A sudden influx of migrants swimming into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in northern Africa is a serious crisis for Europe, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Tuesday, vowing to re-establish order promptly amid heightened diplomatic tensions with Morocco.

Spain deployed troops to Ceuta to patrol the border with Morocco after around 8,000 migrants, many from Sub-Saharan Africa and including some 1,500 minors, entered the enclave on Monday and Tuesday by swimming in or climbing over the fence.

Armored vehicles were guarding Ceuta’s beach on Tuesday, and soldiers and police used batons to clear migrants from the beach and threw smoke bombs to discourage others from crossing.

A Reuters reporter on the ground said the number of arrivals by sea had slowed, and some migrants were voluntarily returning to Morocco. A few others could be seen being carried away by soldiers, but dozens still waded in the water towards Ceuta.

Spain said approximately 4,000 migrants had already been sent back to Morocco, under a readmission deal.

The regional leader of Ceuta criticized what he described as Morocco’s passivity in the face of Monday’s surge, and some independent experts said Rabat had initially allowed it as a means of pressuring Madrid over its decision to admit a rebel leader from the Western Sahara to a Spanish hospital.

Moroccan authorities did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

The Spanish government did not make that connection, with Sanchez calling the north African nation a friend of Spain and the interior ministry citing cooperation over the readmissions, although Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya told Morocco’s ambassador Spain rejected and disapproved of the mass arrivals.

Moroccan TV footage showed the authorities setting up barriers on Tuesday to prevent people from crossing into Ceuta.

“This sudden arrival of irregular migrants is a serious crisis for Spain and Europe,” Sanchez said in a televised address before his arrival in Ceuta.

European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas tweeted that the enclave’s frontier was a European border, expressing his “full solidarity with Spain”.

Ceuta, with a population of 80,000, is on the northern tip of Morocco across from Gibraltar. Along with another Spanish enclave, Melilla, it has long been a magnet for African migrants seeking a better life in Europe. Morocco has a claim on both.

WESTERN SAHARA DISPUTE

The spike in arrivals took place after Rabat expressed its anger last month when Spain discreetly admitted Brahim Ghali, the leader of Western Sahara’s rebel Polisario Front to hospital. Madrid said it acted on purely humanitarian grounds.

Morocco’s Foreign Ministry criticized what it said was Spain’s decision to admit Ghali under a false identity without informing Morocco, warning of repercussions.

The Polisario Front wants the Western Sahara to be an independent state rather than part of Morocco. Algeria, Morocco’s regional rival, backs the Polisario Front.

The United States in December recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara territory.

(Reporting by Belen Carreno, Joan Faus, Cristina Galan and Inti Landauro, Writing by Andrei Khalip and Ingrid Melander, Editing by Estelle Shirbon and Alexandra Hudson)

Malian woman gives birth to nine babies

BAMAKO (Reuters) – A Malian woman gave birth to nine babies on Tuesday – two more than doctors had detected inside her crowded womb – joining a small pantheon of mothers of nonuplets.

The pregnancy of Halima Cisse, 25, has fascinated the West African nation and attracted the attention of its leaders. When doctors in March said Cisse needed specialist care, authorities flew her to Morocco, where she gave birth.

“The newborns (five girls and four boys) and the mother are all doing well,” Mali’s health minister, Fanta Siby, said in a statement.

Cisse was expected to give birth to seven babies, according to ultrasounds conducted in Morocco and Mali that missed two of the siblings. All were delivered by caesarean section.

Nonuplets are extremely rare. Medical complications in multiple births of this kind often mean that some of the babies do not reach full term.

(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Kushner launches group to promote Arab states’ new ties with Israel

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Jared Kushner is forming a group to promote relations between four Arab states and Israel, normalized under agreements he helped broker as a top adviser to his father-in-law former President Donald Trump, the group said on Wednesday.

Kushner is founding the “Abraham Accords Institute for Peace,” to work on deepening agreements Israel reached last year with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

Kushner, who is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump, is writing a book about his experience in helping broker the deals. He will be joined in the new group by former U.S. envoy Avi Berkowitz and ambassadors to the United States from Bahrain, the UAE and Israel.

Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban, a contributor to Democratic causes, was also listed as part of the effort in a statement by the group, which described itself as non-partisan. The founders “intend to add additional Democrats to the group as well as international advisers from the region”, it said.

The Arab countries’ agreements with Israel were opposed by the Palestinians, who say they violate pledges from Arabs not to make peace until Israel withdraws from occupied lands.

President Joe Biden, a Democrat who defeated the Republican Trump in an election in November, has said he aims to strengthen and expand the agreements, a position he repeated on Tuesday in a phone call with the UAE’s powerful crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Peter Graff)

Trump receives Morocco’s highest award for Middle East work: official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday received Morocco’s highest award for his work in advancing a normalization deal between Israel and Morocco, a senior administration official told Reuters.

In a private Oval Office ceremony, Princess Lalla Joumala Alaoui, who is Morocco’s ambassador to the United States, gave Trump the Order of Muhammad, an award given only to heads of state. It was a gift from Morocco’s King Mohammed VI.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz received other awards for their work on the Israel-Morocco deal, which was reached in December.

The United States in the last five months helped broker deals between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. The agreements are aimed at normalizing relations and opening economic ties.

Trump, who leaves office on Wednesday, has drawn some criticism over the Morocco agreement because to seal the deal, he agreed that the United States would recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Western Sahara has been the site of a decades-old territorial dispute between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, a breakaway movement that seeks to establish an independent state in the territory.

The Kushner team had been working on reaching more agreements between Israel and the Arab world. But time has run out and no more are expected before Trump’s departure.

Media were not allowed to witness the award ceremony.

(Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Morocco hosts Israeli envoys, Kushner to hammer out new ties

By Ahmed Eljechtimi

RABAT (Reuters) – Israeli envoys arrived in Morocco on Tuesday to meet its king and hammer out an upgrade of ties that was forged by the White House in a foreign policy push by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Led by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, the Israeli delegation was accompanied by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and architect of pan-Arab rapprochement with Israel.

They took El Al Israel Airlines in the first direct flight by a commercial plane from Tel Aviv to Rabat. Both countries anticipate a surge in tourism aboard such connections, mainly among the hundreds of thousands of Israelis of Moroccan descent.

Morocco followed the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in moving toward normal relations with Israel. Palestinians have censured the U.S.-brokered deals, seeing a betrayal of a long-standing demand that Israel first meet their statehood goals.

As the Trump administration has sought to isolate Iran, the deals have been sweetened with promises of business opportunities or economic aid. Israel’s new partners have also enjoyed bilateral benefits from Washington – in Rabat’s case, U.S. recognition of its sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

“This type of agreement (with Israel) will help have a better interaction between communities and people,” Moroccan Tourism Minister Nadia Fettah Alaoui told I24 television.

During the visit, Ben-Shabbat and Kushner will see Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, Israeli officials said. Moroccan and Israeli officials are also scheduled to sign accords on linking up aviation and financial systems, on visas and water management.

The delegates’ plane, painted with the Hebrew, Arabic and English words for “peace” and a Maghreb good-luck talisman, had a low-key reception at Rabat airport. Moroccan officials describe their deal with Israel as a restoration of mid-level ties that Rabat cooled in 2000 in solidarity with Palestinians.

Israel and Morocco now plan to reopen mutual “liaison offices.” Israel hopes these will be upgraded to embassies.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Mark Heinrich)

U.N. Security Council to talk Western Sahara after Trump policy switch

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.N. Security Council is planning to discuss Western Sahara on Monday, diplomats said, after U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed region in return for the kingdom normalizing ties with Israel.

Trump’s announcement last week was a departure from longstanding U.S. policy on Western Sahara. A closed-door U.N. Security Council meeting on the situation was requested by Germany, diplomats said.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, sent a copy of Trump’s proclamation recognizing “that the entire Western Sahara territory is part of the Kingdom of Morocco” to U.N. chief Antonio Guterres and the Security Council on Tuesday.

The United States had supported a 1991 ceasefire between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, a breakaway movement that seeks to establish Western Sahara as an independent state. The ceasefire is monitored by U.N. peacekeepers.

The region has effectively been split by an earthen wall separating an area controlled by Morocco that it claims as its southern provinces, and territory controlled by the Polisario with a U.N.-mandated buffer zone between them.

U.N. talks have long failed to broker an agreement on how to decide on self-determination. Morocco wants an autonomy plan under Moroccan sovereignty. The Polisario wants a U.N.-backed referendum including on the question of independence.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “position remains unchanged,” said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric last week.

“He remains convinced that a solution to the question of Western Sahara is possible, in accordance” U.N. Security Council resolutions, Dujarric said.

In October, the 15-member Security Council extended the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as MINURSO, for one year, adopting a resolution that “emphasizes the need to achieve a realistic, practicable and enduring political solution to the question of Western Sahara based on compromise.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Robert Birsel)