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US-Israeli delegation signs deals in Morocco marking normalisation

A US-Israeli delegation signed agreements with Morocco in Rabat Tuesday, cementing a Washington-sponsored normalisation of relations between the Jewish state and the North African country.

The visiting delegation, led by Jared Kushner -- son-in-law and advisor to outgoing US President Donald Trump -- and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security advisor, Meir Ben Shabbat, arrived in Rabat from Tel Aviv on the first direct commercial flight between Israel and Morocco.

Less than two weeks ago, 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.

The US-Israeli delegation met King Mohammed VI at the royal palace, before the signing of a tripartite declaration lauding Trump's December 10 decision to recognise Morocco's "sovereignty" over the disputed region of Western Sahara, widely read as a quid pro quo for Rabat's simultaneous pledge to restore ties with Israel.

Tuesday's declaration included a commitment to "immediately resume full official contacts between Israeli and Moroccan counterparts", with all parties agreeing to "fully implement" their sides of the bargain before the end of January.

Appearing alongside Morocco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, Kushner said at an evening press conference that the visit had been "enormously productive so far".

Both Kushner and Ben Shabbat were received at the airport by Moroccan officials, albeit in a low key welcome far from the pomp of the delegation's departure from Israel.

Alongside the tripartite declaration, four bilateral deals were signed Tuesday between Israel and Morocco, centring on direct air links, water management, connecting financial systems and a visa waver arrangement for diplomats.

Morocco has North Africa's largest Jewish community of about 3,000 people, and Israel is home to 700,000 Jews of Moroccan origin.

- Western Sahara -

As part of the Morocco-Israel deal unveiled earlier this month, Trump fulfilled a decades-old goal of Rabat by backing its contested sovereignty in the disputed region of 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.

Kushner said Tuesday the US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara was "rejecting the failed status quo, which benefits no one".

"Genuine autonomy is the only feasible option but it will take work, we urge all parties to constructively engage with the United Nations to move forward through the negotiations," he added.

In a statement late Tuesday, Mohammed VI congratulated Kushner for his "substantial work... which has led to the historic turning point in favour of Morocco's territorial integrity and this promising development for peace in the Middle East".

The US aims to open a consulate in Western Sahara, and has pledged investment, which Moroccan media described as "colossal".

Israel and Morocco are meanwhile due to reopen diplomatic offices.

Morocco closed its liaison office in Tel Aviv in 2000, at the start of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

- 'Just Palestinian cause' -

Mohammed VI has said Morocco will remain an advocate for the Palestinians.

Alongside the announcement of the resumption of relations with Israel, the king had earlier this month assured Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas of Morocco's "continued and sustained commitment to the just Palestinian cause", based on the two-state solution to that conflict.

He reiterated his commitment in his statement on Tuesday.

But the Palestinians -- like the Polisario -- have cried foul and condemned the normalisation announcement between Rabat and the Jewish state.

Two pro-Palestinian demonstrations were banned last week in Rabat, and about 30 groups and far-left parties Tuesday denounced the visit by the "Zionist delegation", demanding Morocco "resist normalisation".

Morocco has sought to temper the anger by insisting that relations with Israel are not new.

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.

Up to now, up to 70,000 Israeli tourists a year have visited Morocco, but they have had to travel via third countries.

Kushner said that while the UAE has become a popular destination for Israeli tourists since direct flights were recently opened between the states, "Morocco is going to give the UAE a run for its money very quickly".

Under Mohammed VI, several programmes have been launched to rehabilitate old Jewish districts, cemeteries and synagogues.


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