Moroccan Jews mourn the passing of King Hassan II

JERUSALEM — Tens of thousands of Israelis are mourning the death of Morocco's King Hassan II, a man they considered "their" king, leaving them homesick for the land their families left.

Young Israelis of Moroccan origin placed the Moroccan flag on top of their cars, while others displayed huge posters in their homes of the king, who died last Friday of a heart attack at the age of 70.

The Moroccan Jewish community in Israel declared a seven-day period of mourning for the king.

A delegation led by Israeli President Ezer Weizman, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Prime Minister Shimon Peres joined 30 other world leaders, including President Clinton and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, in remembering a man who played a vital role in bridging the gap between the Jewish state and the Arab world.

In a condolence message, Weizman called Hassan a "true partner in the peace process."

Attending the funeral, Barak called Hassan a "great leader" and a "farsighted man, a friend to the governments of Israel in their voyage toward peace with the Arab people."

In Israel, Moroccan Jews have traditionally supported parties, such as Likud or Shas, that espouse hardline policies toward the Arab countries. That is partly to compensate for the fact that they felt "Ashkenazi Jews regarded them as Jewish Arabs," according to Haim Shiran, director of Inbal, an ethnic center in Tel Aviv. He said anti-Arab political views were a kind of self-defense mechanism, a way to distinguish themselves from the Arabs.

But when it came to the king's death, the reaction of Israel's estimated 300,000 Moroccan Jews appeared similar to Morocco's Arab residents, many of whom consider the king to be a direct descendent of the Muslim prophet Mohammad.

"I know that it may sound ridiculous," said Shiran, "but when on Friday, I saw the Moroccan announcer on television announcing the death of the king, I broke out in tears."

Hassan took power in 1961 after the death of his father, Mohammed V. When Hassan ascended to the throne, he was an unknown quantity with a reputation as a playboy. But ruling with a deft mixture of pro-Western democracy and traditional autocracy, he earned the respect of his people. He also survived several coup attempts.

Hassan is succeeded by his son Mohammed VI, who is 36.

Mohammed VI's views and leadership abilities are unknown. But most observers, citing the new monarch's knowledge of four languages and his degree from a French university, believe he will continue, and perhaps even accelerate, his father's pro-Western and pro-peace policies.

Mohammed V was widely credited with having saved Morocco's Jews from deportation during World War II, and Hassan continued the philo-Semitic policies of his father. Although there was an outbreak of anti-Jewish incidents following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the Jewish community was generally safe under the protection of both Mohammed and Hassan.

When tens of thousands of Jews left Morocco in a massive aliyah that began after Morocco gained its independence in 1956 — and accelerated after Hassan II gained power — it was due as much to Zionism and a desire for economic opportunity as it was to a fear of anti-Semitism.

Along with the recently deceased King Hussein of Jordan, Hassan was considered a moderate in the Middle East. During his 38-year reign, he discreetly, and later openly, promoted ties with Israel at a time when most of the Arab world rejected such contact.

In the 1967 and 1973 Middle East wars, he contributed only a nominal number of troops to support Arab forces.

His mediation efforts, including secret meetings with Israeli intelligence officials and political leaders, helped pave the way for the 1978 Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt.

Hassan also played a role in preparing for the 1991 Madrid peace conference and welcomed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in September 1993, making Morocco the first Arab nation outside of Egypt to officially host an Israeli leader.

In 1994, Hassan hosted the first Middle East regional economic conference, which included Israel, in Casablanca

After the euphoria of the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel was allowed to establish a consular office in Rabat, and an estimated 40,000 Israeli tourists visited Morocco in 1995 and 1996. After the peace process stalled following the election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, relations cooled considerably.

There were indications that relations were set to improve once again with renewed optimism in the peace process spurred by Barak's election in May.

Speculation before the funeral focused on the possibility of a meeting between Barak and Syrian President Hafez Assad.

But Assad did not attend the funeral, reportedly because of American efforts to set up such a meeting.

Assad, who sent a deputy in his place, instead visited Morocco this week to pay his respects to the new king, according to Israeli press reports.

But even in death Hassan provided an opportunity for Israeli and Arab officials to meet — in this case, an unprecedented exchange among Barak, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Speaking in French, Bouteflika asked Levy whether Israel was serious about peace, to which the Moroccan-born minister responded, "Yes." Levy added that it was in Israel's interest to do so and was ready to work hard to achieve it.

Turning to Barak, Bouteflika said his country was willing to help in any way it could.