From body bags to bugging summits, cosying up to Franco to counter-insurgency: This is how the Mossad built, and nearly destroyed, perhaps the most steadfast clandestine relationship between Israel and any Arab state
Six decades of secret intelligence, military, political and cultural ties between Israel and Morocco finally bore public fruit with last week’s announcement of the normalizing of relations between the two countries.
Every single Mossad chief since the 1960’s – Amit, Zamir, Hofi, Admoni, Shavit, Yatom, Halevy, Dagan, Pardo and current chief Yossi Cohen – have visited the north African nation and met with its leaders and heads of intelligence. But on what is this long-term relationship, perhaps the most steadfast between Israel and any country in the Arab world, built?
At the heart of that long clandestine alliance has always been the simple, mutual recognition that by cooperating with each other, the two countries serve their national interests best.
Over the years relations have known their ups and downs; they were transformed and shaped into different, sometimes contradictory forms, but always remained solid at their core.
Already in the early 1950’s, Israel had contacts with French-ruled Morocco, but relations really gained momentum after Morocco won independence from French colonialism in March 1956.
The French had allowed Moroccan Jews to come and go (and 70,000 had left), but the new King Mohammad V restricted Jews’ right to travel and forbade their emigration to Israel; Zionism was declared a crime in 1959. The king believed, as did other Arab rulers, that anyone who moved to Israel would not only be strengthening the Jewish state, but as conscripts, they could end up fighting their Arab brothers, and even Morocco’s own army and allies.
The Mossad went into action to find a way around the king’s lockdown. It mobilized a team of Israeli spies, many of them Moroccan Jews, all French and Arabic speakers, to devise ways of extracting the remaining 150,000 Jews of Morocco.
The team was called Misgeret – "Framework" – and was in charge of not only the illegal immigration to Israel but also of organizing units to defend the Jewish communities from the threats and harassment by an increasingly hostile Arab Muslim majority. The self-defense units were armed with weapons. Shmuel Toledano, a long-time Mossad operative, was put on charge of the operation, which lasted for five years.
The Misgeret operation arranged for taxis and trucks to take Jews out of Morocco. Where necessary, the agents paid bribes to all manner of uniformed officers along the way. A favorite route out was through Tangier, at that time an international city, and from its port on boats to Israel.
Later, two towns on the Moroccan coast that remained under Spanish control, Ceuta and Melilla, were also used as bases for the project. To use those territorial islands, Mossad obtained the full cooperation of Spain’s fascist ruler, General Francisco Franco.
Franco, the Mossad believed, acted out of guilt for his ties with Hitler (which included handing over detailed lists of Spanish Jews), and even, some thought, Spain’s expulsion of its Jews in 1492.
The Mossad purchased a former army camp located in the British colony of Gibraltar, on the southern coast of Spain. The grounds and barracks were converted into a transfer facility for the Jews exiting from Morocco.
A tragedy changed the nature of the operation. On January 10, 1961, a fishing boat named "Egoz" (Pisces), packed with clandestine Jewish refugees, capsized in a storm between the Moroccan coast and Gibraltar. 42 men, women and children drowned, together with a Mossad radio operator.
The disaster aroused sympathy abroad, but exposed the Mossad’s secret operation, and that angered the Moroccan authorities.
The entire operation, and its operatives, was at risk but, luckily for Israel, in March 1961 Mohammad V died and was replaced by his son Hassan II.
The new king sought to improve relations with the U.S. and was persuaded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, two major U.S. Jewish humanitarian organizations, that it would make a good impression if he allowed his kingdom’s Jews to leave freely for Israel.
In return, the Joint and HIAS paid bribes to the new ruler and his senior officials, effectively a head tax for each Jew allowed out, but disguised as "compensation" for the Moroccan government purportedly investing in local Jewish education. Backed by U.S. Jewish donations, the two groups paid out nearly $50 million to grease the wheels to enable roughly 60,000 of Morocco’s Jews to leave.
A new phase of the immigration project was initiated, called "Yakhin" after one of the pillars supporting Solomon’s Temple. Again, it was run by the Mossad. This way another 80,000 Jews made aliya to Israel between 1961 and 1967.
The small Jewish community which remained in Morocco has functioned ever since as a bridge for Israeli-Moroccan ties, especially during stormy days and crises.
The "Misgeret" project, which combined immigration with communal self-defense and bribes, would serve as a model for future collaborative and clandestine operations between the Mossad and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee on behalf of other Jewish communities in distress around the globe, from Argentina to Iraq, Western Europe and later Yemen and Ethiopia.
The rule of Hassan II is considered to be the golden era of the secret relations between the two countries, relations cultivated both by the Mossad and by its Moroccan counterpart, led by two intelligence and military officials: General Mohamed Oufkir and Colonel Ahmed Dlimi. Both officers would later be killed by order of the king, who accused them of plotting against him.
Moroccan intelligence duo allowed the Mossad to open a station in the country; it was situated in a villa in the capital, Rabat, and manned by experienced operatives, among them Yosef Porat and Dov Ashdot.
When Morocco hosted the second Arab League summit in 1965, its security services decided to bug the Casablanca hotel rooms and conference halls of all the Arab leaders, from kings, presidents and prime ministers to their military Chiefs of Staff.
Although this may have been relatively standard practice for any security services around the world, Morocco’s actions were also fueled by mistrust of some of its Arab League brethren, and were encouraged by the CIA, which had good relations with King Hassan. But what was truly unusual was the involvement of an officially hostile state in the bugging operation: Israel.
According to foreign reports, Mossad operatives were there too, helping their local counterparts in the bugging operation and sharing the information.
According to these reports, Morocco helped the Mossad plant agents in hostile Arab countries such as Egypt, then Israel’s arch-enemy.
But the Mossad soon realized that in spyworld, there are no free lunches. The Moroccans expected payback - and in a particularly problematic form that nearly scuppered decades of work to build the Israel-Morocco secret alliance.
Oufkir and Dlimi asked Mossad chief Meir Amit in 1965 to assassinate Mehdi Ben Barka, a charismatic Moroccan opposition leader and strong opponent of Hassan II. Amit consulted with prime minister Levi Eshkol; it was clearly an unusual request: to become Morocco’s mercenaries for a domestic political killing.
Eshkol vetoed the request, but allowed the Mossad to assist the Moroccans in locating Ben Barka’s whereabouts. "I was surprised how easy it was for us," Rafi Eitan, then head of Mossad operations in Europe, told me several years ago (Eitan died in 2019).
"The Moroccans told us Ben Barka was in Geneva. I asked one of our helpers and he found the address in a local phone book." Moroccan agents, assisted by ex-French police and security agents posing as a film production crew, lured Ben Barka to Brasserie Lipp café in Paris and kidnapped him in broad daylight.
The Mossad’s two closest Moroccan contacts, Oufkir and Dlimi, personally interrogated and tortured Bin Baraka to death. It was not clear whether they had intended to kill him. Dlimi panicked, and rushed to ask Eitan for another favor: to help dump the body.
According to foreign reports, Eitan opened a map, pointed to the green wooded area of the French capital’s Bois de Boulogne, told them to buy a sack of acid, to wrap the body in it and bury him there.
Ben Barka’s body has never been recovered, but the assassination caused a diplomatic and political storm in France, Morocco and Israel.
French President Charles de Gaulle demanded explanations from Israel, and threatened to shut down the Mossad station in Paris, then its main hub for European operations. In Israel, a commission of inquiry was established to answer the key question: who gave the order to participate in the plot. Mossad chief Amit and PM Eshkol explained that Israel was involved only indirectly in the killing, but the world refused to accept their story.
That fateful Moroccan request would go on to serve as a precedent to how the Mossad would respond when many other security services asked for help to get rid of their political opponents. Since the Ben Barka debacle, the Mossad has always rejected those requests.
Two years later, Israel won a swift victory in the 1967 Six Day War. Israeli prestige was on the rise, and that helped upgrade relations with Morocco. Israel’s war surplus – tanks and artillery from French manufacturers – were sold to the Moroccan army.
Yet the cozy relations didn’t prevent King Hassan II sending his troops to help the Egyptian-Syrian war effort against Israel in 1973. In retaliation, Mossad head Yitzhak Hofi ordered a halt to cooperation with Morocco.
The quarrel didn’t last too long. In 1977, King Hassan played host to the secret meetings between the Mossad and Egypt which paved the way to Sadat’s historic address to the Knesset and the peace treaty signed between Jerusalem and Cairo, the first of its kind between Israel and the Arab world.
Israeli-Moroccan relations soon went back on track in all fields. Israeli military equipment, advisors and experts taught their Moroccan counterparts anti-insurgent tactics to battle the Polisario Front, which fights for independence in western Sahara, a former Spanish colony annexed by Morocco in 1976.
Following the peace process between Israel and the PLO and the Oslo Accords, and in the footsteps of other Arab and Muslim states, Morocco opened a low-level diplomatic mission in Tel Aviv. After the second intifada, King Mohammed VI, who had meanwhile inherited the crown from his late father Hassan, ordered the mission to close in 2000.
But informal ties have always remained in place. An estimated million Israelis can claim Moroccan ancestry, and they and other Israelis have been allowed to fly into and travel around Morocco for years. Bilateral trade is constantly on the rise. The two countries’ intelligence and military ties are better than ever.
The recent normalization announcement formalizes, publicly, what has been a long clandestine relationship between Israel and Morocco, planted and cultivated by the Mossad.
It is a classic example of the Mossad acting as Israel’s shadow foreign policy arm, and it would be no surprise if relations with other states – such as Oman, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, where Israel’s secret services have also taken the lead, come into the open too, with the establishment of formal diplomatic relations.