Dec 10, 2020 - World

Morocco to normalize ties with Israel in deal with Trump over Western Sahara

Trump and Netanyahu at the signing of the Abraham Accords. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Morocco has agreed to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, President Trump announced on Thursday. The Moroccan decision comes as part of a deal that includes U.S. recognition of the disputed territory of Western Sahara as part of Morocco.

Why it matters: Morocco is the fourth Arab country to move toward normalization with Israel in the last four months as part of the Trump administration's "Abraham Accords" initiative. But the deal also involves a change in long-standing U.S. policy with just six weeks left in Trump's term.

Behind the scenes: The negotiations around this deal started two years ago but intensified in the last few months. Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner and special envoy Avi Berkowitz negotiated directly with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita.

  • The Israeli government encouraged the White House several times in the last three years to pursue this track, but the talks over the last few months involved only the U.S. and Morocco.
  • The White House briefed the Israeli government in recent weeks about a possible breakthrough. As with the UAE deal and his secret trip to Saudi Arabia, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t inform his coalition partners — Minister of Defense Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Israeli officials tell me. 
  • Nevertheless, Gantz and Ashkenazi were not caught by surprise. While the White House coordinated mainly with Netanyahu’s close confidantes — ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer and national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat — it did give a heads-up to both Gantz and Ashkenazi, a U.S. official tells me.

The other side: While the normalization deal is a win for Israel and a significant achievement for Trump, recognition of Western Sahara as part of Morocco is a big shift in U.S. policy — and a major diplomatic achievement for Morocco.

  • Western Sahara is a sparsely populated, disputed territory that borders Morocco on the northwest corner of Africa.
  • It was formerly controlled by Spain and is now claimed by Morocco despite international opposition and fierce resistance from the indigenous population.
  • State of play: A violent insurgency ended in 1991 after 16 years, but the matter remains unresolved. Several weeks ago, fighting erupted again between the Moroccan army and Sahrawi rebels.

What’s next: Efforts are underway to coordinate a three-way call tomorrow between Trump, Netanyahu and Morocco's King Mohammed VI, Israeli officials tell me. It's possible that Bourita will represent Morocco on the call rather than the king.

The U.S. is now the only Western country to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. President-elect Biden will have to decide whether to reverse Trump's decision after taking office in January.

  • Such a move would not be easy for Biden to make, because it could cause the Morocco-Israeli normalization process to collapse.

Update: Kushner said in a briefing with reporters that Morocco had agreed to resume official contacts with Israel, allow Israeli airlines to use Moroccan airspace, and begin direct flights between the countries.

  • Kushner said Morocco and Israel would promote deeper business ties, open diplomatic liaison offices in Rabat and Tel Aviv, and later open embassies.
  • Minutes before he announced the deal, Trump spoke on the phone with King Mohammed. Both reaffirmed their commitments under the deal, per the White House.
  • According to the Moroccan royal court, Trump said on the call that the U.S. had decided to open a consulate in Dakhla in Western Sahara, mainly to "encourage American investments."

King Mohammed spoke with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas today and stressed that his country "stands by a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" and sees negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians as the only way to resolve the conflict, according to the royal court statement. 

Flashback: Israel and Morocco have had a secret relationship dating back to the 1960s through their respective intelligence services.

  • In the late 1970s, Morocco mediated between Israel and Egypt to help them move towards the historic peace deal.
  • In the 1990s, after the Oslo Accords, Israel and Morocco established diplomatic relations and opened diplomatic missions in Tel Aviv and Rabat.
  • In 1994, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres visited Morocco as the guests of the late King Hassan II.
  • But in 2000, after the second Intifada, Morocco cut off relations with Israel and both countries shut down their diplomatic offices.

In the 20 years since, there have been several secret meetings between Israeli officials and Moroccan foreign ministers.

  • In September 2018, Netanyahu met secretly with Bourita, the Moroccan foreign minister, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

What they're saying:

  • "Today, I signed a proclamation recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara," Trump tweeted. "Morocco's serious, credible, and realistic autonomy proposal is the ONLY basis for a just and lasting solution for enduring peace and prosperity!"
  • "Another HISTORIC breakthrough today! Our two GREAT friends Israel and the Kingdom of Morocco have agreed to full diplomatic relations – a massive breakthrough for peace in the Middle East!"

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