Israel and the Trump administration have been discussing plans that would have the United States formally recognize Moroccan sovereignty in the occupied Western Sahara, according to Israel’s Channel 13 and an Axios report released on Monday, February 3, citing both Israeli and U.S. sources who remained nonetheless unnamed.
Why Do The Americans And Israelis Care?
Israel’s lobbying would in return push Morocco’s King Mohammed VI to normalize his kingdom’s ties with Israel. The move would eventually see Morocco - which traditionally backs Palestine – finally recognize Israel as a state. Morocco, a country that was formerly home to a large number of Jews in North Africa for centuries, has not yet recognized Israel as a state, although the two have allegedly maintained covert relations ever since the creation of Israel in 1948.
A public rapprochement between the two countries would be a major diplomatic achievement for both. By normalizing its relations with Israel after the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in the occupied Western Sahara, Morocco would also adopt an openly supportive stance as regards Israeli occupation and settlement activity in Palestine.
Will Morocco Really Shift Its Stance On Israel?
Arab and Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa have historically stood behind the Palestinians, particularly following the 1967 Six-Day War that saw Israel seize territories from as far as Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
However, with today’s looming threat of Iran – the common foe to the Gulf Monarchies as much as to Israel – the United States has been putting unrelenting efforts in recent years toward bringing Arab countries and Israel together.
If this diplomatic effort goes into effect, however, ties between Morocco and Israel would likely prove highly controversial, not only among the international community, which mainly considers Morocco’s occupation in Western Sahara illegitimate, but also among populations in the region, who overwhelmingly still back Palestine.
What Is Morocco’s Situation In The Western Sahara?
Morocco, the United States’ oldest ally in the region, currently controls almost 90% of Western Sahara. If the United States agrees with Israel’s demands by opening a consulate there, it will become the first major power to have a diplomatic mission in the occupied country.
Morocco claims the Western Sahara territory as its own and has long been engaged in a conflict against the Polisario, the Sahrawi rebel national liberation movement which seeks an independence referendum in the territory.
Mauritania was the other country to claim Western Sahara as its own, after the signing of the 1975 Madrid Accords that would see the withdrawal of Spain, which had formerly controlled those territories. Mauritania later withdrew its claim in 1984, when an armed conflict was still going on by the Algerian-backed Polisario and Moroccan forces. The armed conflict, which started shortly after the Madrid Accords, ended in 1991 with a ceasefire.
But Western Sahara still strives for its independence from the Moroccan monarchy. Morocco, however, has been doubling efforts to legitimize its rule over Sahrawi people.
The United Nations has long condemned Morocco’s occupation and considers Western Sahara to be a non-self-governing territory. Other countries in the continent still see it as “Africa’s last colony,” although Morocco put enormous effort toward gaining the support of African nations in legitimizing its rule. In recent weeks, four African nations have opened consulates in Western Sahara owing to those efforts.
Netanyahu’s Outreach To Morocco—And The Trump Admin Connection
Recent contact between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Moroccans has increased after a secret meeting between Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita and Netanyahu’s national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat on the sidelines of the September 2018 U.N. General Assembly.
Yariv Elbaz, a Moroccan Jew and one of Morocco’s main food retailers, is mentioned in the report as having played a key role in linking up the two officials. Elbaz is also one of Trump adviser Jared Kushner’s “close associates,” claimed the exclusive report. The two met in Casablanca in May 2019, when they visited the old Jewish cemetery there.
Ben-Shabbat then approached Trump administration officials and proposed a tripartite deal that would benefit both Netanyahu —who faces an election next month after failing to form a government twice last year— and King Mohammed VI.
Netanyahu’s Efforts To Move The Deal Forward
The deal was first pushed ahead by Netanyahu ahead of Israel’s April, 2019 elections, but it was put off amid a controversy stirred by Ben-Shabbat’s secret visit to Morocco that was leaked in the Arab press, the report went on.
Netanyahu tried again to introduce the deal ahead of the September 2019 elections, but Trump’s former National Security Adviser John Bolton reportedly stood in his way. Bolton, who was a fierce opponent of Morocco’s occupation in Western Sahara, was later ousted by Trump for other reasons, and the issue was brought up again in November by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit to Morocco’s capital of Rabat.
Morocco first established ties with Israel in 1993, after signing the Oslo Agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.). But the two countries diplomatic relations were cut again in the wake of second Palestinian Intifada in 2000.
Today, a rapprochement between the two, as well as between Israel and other Arab countries, is more likely than ever —not least with the record-high tensions with Iran. For one thing, Morocco has long accused Iran and Hezbollah of providing weapons to the Polisario front, its enemies in Western Sahara.
Israel: Seeking Ties And Alliances In The Arab World And Africa
On Monday, February 3, Israel confirmed it was working to normalize ties with Sudan as well, a country that has just gotten out of a year of political turmoil and where Netanyahu held a surprise meeting with its transitional government last week. Netanyahu also visit Uganda recently to discuss opening Israeli embassies there with President Yoweri Museveni. Netanyahu stands in a stronger position than his electoral rival Benny Gantz, who is said to have hardly enough political experience and even less diplomatic support.
Morocco And Israel Continue To Move Closer Together
After announcing his recent peace plan for Israel and Palestine Trump also introduced the initiative to convince Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, among others, to sign non-belligerence agreements with Tel Aviv, Channel 13 reported. Morocco was one of the first countries in the region to praise Trump’s deal, saying it appreciated his efforts. Netanyahu, for his part, also needs an Arab recognition of his expansionist aims in occupied Palestine, most notably as he struggles for his political survival with an upcoming election next month.
Earlier this week, Intelligence Online, a French website specializing in global strategic intelligence, reported that Morocco bought three Israeli-made reconnaissance drones, sold via France.