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A scene from Western Sahara. Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images

Israel and the U.S. have been discussing a deal that would see the U.S. recognize Moroccan sovereignty in the occupied Western Sahara and Morocco take steps to normalize relations with Israel, according to Israeli and U.S. sources.

Why it matters: This would be a major diplomatic achievement for Morocco's king, Mohammed VI, and a boost for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who would get a high-profile public visit to Morocco — in perilous political times.

  • It could also advance the Trump administration's aim of bringing Israel and Arab states closer together.
  • But it would be a highly controversial step that runs counter to the international consensus.

The big picture: Western Sahara is a sparsely populated disputed territory, formerly controlled by Spain but claimed by Morocco despite international opposition and fierce resistance from the indigenous population.

  • A violent insurgency ended in 1991 after 16 years, but the matter remains unresolved.

The backstory: Contacts between Netanyahu and the Moroccans started getting more serious after a secret meeting with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2018.

  • That meeting was the result of a back channel established between Bourita and Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, with the help of businessman Yariv Elbaz.
  • Elbaz, a Moroccan Jew, is one of the main food retailers in Morocco and a close associate of Jared Kushner.
  • In May 2019, Elbaz met with Kushner in Morocco and took him and the entire White House “peace team” for a visit at the old Jewish cemetery in Casablanca.

The back channel was established behind the back of Mossad director Yossi Cohen, who is in charge of Israel’s secret diplomacy in the Arab world.

  • Cohen was furious when it was discovered, but Netanyahu told Ben-Shabbat to push ahead anyway.
  • According to Israeli sources, Ben-Shabbat wanted to use Israel’s close relations with the Trump administration to reach a breakthrough with Morocco.
  • He approached Trump administration officials and proposed the U.S. support the Moroccan position on a sensitive national security issue — the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara.
  • The proposal for a trilateral deal was also conveyed to the Moroccans, Israeli officials said. 

Netanyahu tried to push the deal ahead of Israel's April 2019 election, but it was shelved when details of Ben-Shabbat's visit to Morocco leaked to the Arab press.

  • He tried again before the September 2019 election, but then-national security adviser John Bolton, a fierce opponent of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, killed the idea.
  • The issue came up again in November, before Secretary of State Pompeo’s visit to Morocco. Nothing came of it while Pompeo was in Rabat.

Go deeper

33 mins ago - World

Putin is challenging Ukraine's "right to exist," Blinken says

Blinken (L) speaks in Berlin on Thursday. Photo: Kay Nietfeld - Pool/Getty

Secretary of State Tony Blinken put the stakes of a Russian invasion of Ukraine in stark terms on Thursday, saying Vladimir Putin's threat is a direct challenge to Ukraine's "right to exist" as an independent country and a democracy.

What he's saying: “There’s been a lot of speculation about President Putin’s true intentions, but we don’t actually have to guess. He’s told us, repeatedly. He’s laying the groundwork for an invasion because he doesn’t believe Ukraine is a sovereign nation," Blinken said during a speech in Berlin.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Jared Kushner wants to Trump-proof his private equity future

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Jared Kushner appears to have convinced the private equity market that he'll stick with his new firm, called Affinity Partners, even if his father-in-law returns to the White House.

The big picture: Private equity is littered with former presidential advisers and cabinet officials, and Trump's is proving to be no different.

2 hours ago - World

Ukraine president to Biden: "There are no minor incursions"

Photo: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky responded on Thursday to President Biden's suggestion that a "minor incursion" by Russia may not draw the same response as a large invasion, which some in Kyiv saw as inviting Russian aggression.

What he's saying: "We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the President of a great power," Zelensky tweeted.