Feb 3, 2020 - World

Exclusive: Israel pushing Trump to back Morocco over Western Sahara

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.

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