In what may be its final major act on the foreign policy stage, the Trump administration has agreed on terms with Morocco to normalize relations with Israel. As is customary for the outgoing President, Donald Trump announced the news on social media, tweeting on December 10 that: “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!”
The deal is a clear quid pro quo – Morocco’s recognition of Israel has been traded for the US becoming the first country to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.
The Moroccan government downplayed the notion of fully normalized relations with Israel, pointing to the fact that the two countries have had real, although opaque, relations for many years. The New York Times (NYT) reported that: “Moroccan officials also conspicuously committed only to reopening so-called liaison offices with Israel — not embassies or consulates — pledging vaguely to ‘resume diplomatic relations as soon as possible.’” These liaison offices were initially opened following the 1994 Oslo Accords – one of the major peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians – but were closed during the Second Palestinian Intifada in 2000.
President Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, claimed that the agreement does indeed represent the opening of full diplomatic relations between Israel and Morocco and promised that commercial flights would begin to take place between the two countries. Despite these assurances, two anonymous Moroccan officials also told the NYT that the Moroccan King, Mohammed VI, was distinctly uneasy about appearing too friendly with Israel, lest he jeopardizes his country’s standing in the Arab world.
According to Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, the King called the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas soon after the announcement to clarify that Morocco remains committed to the cause of the Palestinians. However, it appears that, in the end, the administration in Rabat was swayed by the promise of US$3 billion worth of US investment in Morocco over the coming years.
It appears that the administration in Rabat was swayed by the promise of US$3 billion worth of US investment in Morocco over the coming years.
Israel’s response has unsurprisingly been more jubilant. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu predicted a “very warm peace” between the two countries and stated that: “There have been strong ties between Morocco and the Jewish people through the entire modern era.” Some 1 million Israelis are of Moroccan descent – almost all of Morocco’s 200,000 strong Jewish population emigrated to Israel in the years following the state’s creation in 1948.
The move includes Morocco in the US-brokered Abraham Accords, making the North African country the fourth Arab nation to establish ties with Israel in the past four months, following Bahrain, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A Moroccan investor named Yariv Elbaz is said to have played a key role in the negotiations, which have reportedly been going on since 2017. The most controversial part of the deal is Washington’s decision to become the first country to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the territory of the Western Sahara. The US plans to open an embassy in the picturesque, coastal city of Dakhla, in central Western Sahara, despite the fact that no US citizens are officially known to be living there.
Morocco has occupied Western Sahara since 1975, following Spain’s belated relinquishing over its former colony. During Morocco’s incursion, around half of the native Sahrawi population fled to neighboring Algeria where around 100,000 continue to reside in refugee camps. There followed a 16-year conflict between the Moroccan state and the Sahrawi independence movement led by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Oued Ed-Dahab, also known as the Polisario Front. Sidi Omar, the Polisario’s representative at the United Nations, tweeted two hours after Trump, stating: “The move shows that #Morocco’s regime is willing to sell its soul to maintain its illegal occupation of parts of #WesternSahara.”
In 1991, a UN-brokered ceasefire was signed and the Polisario was promised a referendum on independence within one year. However, due to repeated objections by Morocco, the vote is yet to take place. Successive UN Security Council resolutions have stated support for the referendum, many of them authored by the US.
This new deal comes only weeks after one of the most serious ruptures of the fragile 1991 ceasefire, in which Moroccan soldiers clashed with Polisario forces near the Mauritanian border.
This new deal comes only weeks after one of the most serious ruptures of the fragile 1991 ceasefire, in which Moroccan soldiers clashed with Polisario forces near the Mauritanian border, evoking the ire of Sahrawi independence activists. Many are concerned that the Trump administration’s announcement could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, tipping the current tensions into a state of outright war.
Mouloud Said, a representative of the Polisario, said that Morocco’s recent actions constitute the end of the ceasefire. “We are back to square one, to the situation we were in in 1991,” he said. “The ceasefire is over. Now it is just a war that will continue until the ultimate liberation of the Sahrawi people. It’s sad that Mr. Trump made this decision on the day that the world is celebrating the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
The new agreements are in line with the Trump administration’s repeated violation of longstanding international norms. In 2017, the US officially and provocatively recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy to the city. Washington later recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a territory annexed from Syria. The attempt to legitimize Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara is argued by some to be in the same vein.
Trump’s announcement has been met with a mixed reaction in Morocco. While most in the country welcome Washington’s recognition of their country’s sovereignty over Western Sahara (which a large majority of Moroccans believe to be a part of Morocco’s rightful territory), many are unhappy with the idea of normalization of relations with Israel. Several protests have already taken place across the country against the decision, with more scheduled for the coming days.
More than 80 countries have recognized the independence of Western Sahara, which is a full member of the African Union.
More than 80 countries have recognized the independence of Western Sahara, which is a full member of the African Union. However, while Morocco’s sovereignty over the region has not until now been officially accepted by any nations, many powerful states have long traded with Morocco for resources extracted from the territory, in potential violation of international law. If one visits the territory, the independence recognized by so many countries is not in any way apparent. All of the major economic and population centers are controlled by Morocco and it is undeniable that Rabat has de facto control of the territory. Western Sahara is, in most material respects, part of Morocco.
As on many other occasions over the past four years, the European Union moved quickly to distance itself from Trump’s statements. Several US officials, such as Senators Jim Inhofe and Patrick Leahy and Congresswoman Betty McCollum, have also expressed their opposition to the administration’s actions. Senator Inhofe remarked scathingly that the “rights of the Western Saharan people have been traded away” and even staunchly pro-Israel political figures in the US have reacted with alarm. Outgoing congressman, head of the House Foreign Relations Committee, and staunch supporter of Israel Eliot Engel applauded the new relationship between Jerusalem and Rabat, but warned the Trump administration against extinguishing peaceful, multilateral avenues of conflict resolution.
Meanwhile, the Sahrawi independence movement is determined not to give up its cause. Sahrawi Journalist Nazha El Khalidi told Democracy Now that the decision of the Trump administration “will not erase our legitimate right to freedom and independence.” She went on to say that: “We will continue to struggle . . . the state of Western Sahara is already determined by international law, not by the tweet of a president who is already on his way out.” El Khalidi’s indifference to Washington’s actions mirrors the inertia of the long, drawn-out nature of the conflict in her homeland. “We are not surprised, since we have been betrayed by the international community for over 30 years,” she added.
Some in the independence movement will be hoping that the recent pact will be undone when Trump leaves office in January. “We hope that the incoming Biden administration will return the US to being a nation that respects long-standing international legal norms and that will use its influence to encourage meaningful UN-lead peace talks on Western Sahara that have been neglected for so long,” continued El Khalidi.
Joe Biden could reverse Washington’s deal with Rabat with the stroke of a pen. Yet the Biden administration will be under pressure from pro-Israel groups not to do so.
It is true that, when President, Joe Biden could reverse Washington’s deal with Rabat with the stroke of a pen. Yet the Biden administration will be under pressure from pro-Israel groups not to do so, as such a move could be used as justification for Morocco to rescind its recognition of Israel. To date, Biden’s transition team has declined to comment on the matter.
There are also strategic and financial motivations behind Washington’s decision that will not go away when power changes hands in January. The news of the US-Morocco deal comes at the same time as a report detailing US plans to sell at least four state of the art military drones to Morocco. While it is illegal under international law and US domestic law to provide arms assistance to invading armies, Washington regularly overlooks these responsibilities, a reality to which the citizens of countless countries can attest. Furthermore, now that the US has recognized Western Sahara as part of Morocco, the Trump administration may argue that the conflict is an internal political matter for the kingdom. This could set a precedent, paving the way for the sale of high-tech military equipment to other occupying powers around the world.
While all is far from clear at this stage, if Morocco is to open any kind of serious diplomatic relations with Israel, it will open the door for more Arab states to do the same. The Trump administration’s likely long-term goal for the Abraham Accords is for Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Jerusalem. As yet, this is something that the most powerful Arab state has so far refused to do. Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the NYT that this deal “will make it easier for Saudi Arabia to take the step when it is ready to do so.”
As for the Western Sahara, while Rabat and Washington are hoping to break the deadlock and finally recognize the territory as part of Morocco, pro-independence activists such as Nazha El Khalidi, Sidi Omar, and Mouloud Said remain adamant that this new deal changes nothing.