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Rabin Makes Surprise Visit to Morocco : Diplomacy: Israeli officials say recognition is virtually certain in wake of symbolic meeting with King Hassan.

September 15, 1993|MICHAEL PARKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, maintaining the momentum of peacemaking diplomacy in the Middle East, made a surprise visit to Morocco on Tuesday amid speculation that the Jewish state will soon begin establishing diplomatic relations with many of its Arab neighbors.

Rabin, clearly hoping to benefit from the agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization on Palestinian self-government, said he had wanted to confer with Morocco's King Hassan II on "a rapprochement between Israel and the Arabs."

Although Israel and Morocco did not announce the establishment of diplomatic relations, Israeli officials said such a move is now virtually certain and added that Morocco is coordinating its action with other Arab and Muslim countries.

Hassan called the agreement signed by Israel and the PLO in Washington this week a "step toward a better future." He then wished his Israeli guests shana tova , a happy new year in Hebrew, in advance of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year festival that begins at sundown today.

"What King Hassan did today was a declaration of support and an important indication for the future," said Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who accompanied Rabin on the daylong stopover.

President Clinton praised Hassan, a longstanding friend of the United States in the Arab world, for meeting Rabin and Peres.

"I applaud King Hassan, and I hope that other Arab leaders will follow that example and that we will continue now rapidly to break down the common barriers between Israel and other nations," Clinton said in Washington.

The Moroccan stop was the first official visit by an Israeli prime minister to an Arab country other than Egypt, which concluded a peace agreement with Israel in 1979.

"I believe there is in this (visit) a symbolic act, particularly of thanks and appreciation to the king, as well as a concrete illustration of the prospects of a breakthrough in relations with the Arab states," Rabin said.

Israel and Morocco have had secret contacts at very senior levels for years--including a 1976 trip by Rabin, then in his first term as prime minister, when he came disguised in a bushy mustache, wig and thick glasses to meet Hassan. Peres has made at least four clandestine visits to Morocco over the years, including one in 1986 as prime minister.

"This visit was one of the many great things done by King Hassan II to advance peace between the Arab nations and peoples and Israel," Rabin told journalists accompanying him.

In Jerusalem, Police Minister Moshe Shahal said that other Arab countries have expressed interest in establishing ties with Israel now that it is moving toward reconciliation with the Palestinians.

"Now that the Palestinians have issued far-reaching declarations and recognize Israel and its right to exist, there is no reason not to have diplomatic relations with us, and in my view it is expected," Shahal said.

Israeli officials said relations with Tunisia, the current headquarters of the PLO, would probably come along with relations with Morocco.

So far, Egypt is the only Arab country that has diplomatic relations with Israel. On Tuesday, Israel and Jordan signed an agreement on the framework for a peace treaty between them.

Rafael Edri, a Moroccan-born member of the Israeli Parliament from Rabin's Labor Party who organized the visit, said the two countries might focus immediately on economic cooperation and direct air links.

For Rabin, the surprise visit was a domestic political coup because of the opposition within Israel to the agreement with the PLO and because of the fragility of his coalition government. To bolster support for the accord, Rabin must show it as beneficial and not simply the surrender of territory to the Palestinians.

The visit could win Rabin more support among Israel's large community of Moroccan Jews, more than 120,000 of whom immigrated to Israel in the first decade of the Jewish state.

Rabin and Peres met Hassan at his seaside palace in Skhirat 12 miles southwest of Rabat amid tight security. Moroccan Prime Minister Mohammed Karim Lamrani and other government leaders were also present.

After his talks with Hassan, Rabin visited a synagogue and the old Jewish quarter of Casablanca, the country's largest city, where most of Morocco's remaining 8,000 Jews live. Taking their shoes off, Rabin and Peres toured the newly opened, monumental Grand Hassan II Mosque, which has the world's tallest minaret and cost more than $500 million. Rabin also laid a wreath on the grave of Hassan's father, Mohammed V, who protected the country's Jews during the Nazi invasion of North Africa.

Meanwhile, in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip on Tuesday, two Palestinians died in separate attempts to kill Israeli soldiers and policemen. The militant Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, said its members were responsible for both attacks. Hamas opposes the Israeli-Palestinian accord.

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