CASABLANCA, Morocco — It’s not every day that an Arab government is forced to apologize for publicly embracing a pro-Palestinian peace activist. But Ofer Bronchtein’s peculiar offense is that he’s a Jew.
Long known as one of the Arab world’s most moderate states, Morocco stunned the world by electing the Islamist Justice and Development Party (known by its French acronym “PJD”) last November. Since January when its leaders were sworn in, the PJD has been embroiled in a series of public fights over “Zionism.”
The latest uproar came after Moroccan newspapers showed photographs of Bronchtein, a former adviser to the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, smiling with PJD leaders including Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane. The two appeared at the PJD’s Seventh Congress, a triennial party conference, on July 14 in the Moroccan capital city of Rabat.
The episode reached its climax Monday as PJD’s own supporters forced the party to apologize for inviting Bronchtein, who founded and still leads the International Forum for Peace in Paris.
But no apology has come for the appearance of Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal at the same event.
During his speech, Meshaal said he is prepared to “die a martyr for Palestine.” Hamas is among 51 global organizations on the U.S. State Department’s “Foreign Terrorist Organizations List.”
The Tunisian newspaper Assabah Daily reported that Bronchtein had an historic meeting with Meshaal during the July 14 weekend, brokered by Prime Minister Benkirane himself.
Bronchtein, a leading advocate of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, predicted that the meeting “would open a new horizon for Israelis and Palestinians alike.” But Muslim radicals inside the PJD reacted with anger, forcing the public apology from Morocco’s minister of state barely a week later.
The PJD’s core voters object to a two-state solution because it allows Israel to exist. In news reports, rank-and-file PJD members refer to Israel as “the Zionist entity.”
The Bronchtein affair has created concern among Moroccan observers who typically see King Mohammed VI as the only viable mediator in any future Arab-Israeli talks. Morocco’s monarch has a deep relationship with his country’s 30,000 Jews, and with more than 700,000 Jews of Moroccan origin currently living in Israel.
Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, told the French-language Moroccan weekly magazine “L’Observateur du Maroc” that the king “continues to promote peace” in the Middle East, and called Morocco “a country of tolerance.”
“His Majesty the King is the Commander of the Faithful who enjoys the respect of all religious communities,” Rabbi Amar added.
King Mohammed V, Morocco’s ruler during World War II, famously stood up to France’s Vichy government and protected his country’s more than 200,000 Jews from the Nazis.
The PJD’s apology, issued Monday night, blamed its Paris office for what it called “the error” of inviting a Jewish activist who is oriented toward peace with Palestinians.
Benkirane, the prime minister, insisted that he only approved Bronchtein’s appearance in Rabat this month because party officials ”told me he was French and had a Palestinian passport, and [that] although he is of Israeli origin, he is a supporter of the Palestinian cause.”
Pressure from radical elements inside the Islamist ruling party ultimately forced Benkirane’s hand. The Oneness Movement for Reform, the PJD branch in charge of religious preaching, said Bronchtein’s appearance at the event was a “Zionist infiltration” and criticized the party for embracing “normalization” of relations with Israel.
The Renewal Movement, a vocal group of students inside the PJD, had called on the party to ”apologize to the people of Morocco for inviting the Israeli.” Any contact between Moroccans and “the Zionist state” should be illegal, they told PJD government ministers last week.