Morocco has become the fourth country in the Middle East and North African region to agree to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, an 11th-hour foreign policy achievement for the lame duck Trump administration as it seeks to shore up regional support for Israel as a countermeasure to Iranian aggression.
As part of the deal, the US announced that it “recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara territory,” a huge win for Morocco’s government but one that ignores a longstanding assertion of independence from the local Sahrawi population, which also accuses Rabat of unfair treatment and persecution.
“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!” President Donald Trump said on Twitter Thursday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the “historic” peace agreement between Israel and Morocco, while lavishing praise on Trump for what he called “his extraordinary efforts” to bring peace to the region.
Netanyahu also thanked the King of Morocco “for taking this historic decision to bring a historic peace between us.” Netanyahu said liaison offices would be reopened as soon as possible, followed by the opening of embassies and full diplomatic relations, as well as direct flights between the countries.
Morocco was once home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the Middle East and North Africa, much of which fled to Europe and the US after Israel declared independence in 1948, leaving many Jews in Arab countries fearful for their safety. This move may encourage many Jewish Moroccans to visit their ancestral homeland as it now embraces Israel.
The move follows recent announcements by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, deals largely brokered by the President’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and a team of negotiators.
Talking to reporters Thursday, Kushner pointed to the strong US-Morocco relationship as the primary reason for recognizing their sovereignty in the Western Sahara, stating it “recognizes the inevitable.”
“Today we announced that America will be recognizing Moroccan sovereignty in the Western Sahara. This is something that’s been talked about for a long time but something that seemed inevitable. At this point it’s something that we think advances the region and helps bring more clarity to where things are going,” Kushner said.
Efforts by Kushner to broker ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia have thus far fallen short, although Kushner, on a recent trip, was able to secure an agreement to allow Israeli commercial flights to use Saudi Arabian airspace.
The effort comes as the Trump administration looks to create a block of solidarity between Israel and several Arab countries as a means for countering Iranian aggression in the region. While the White House touts the deals as peace plans, of the four nations only Sudan has been involved in low level conflicts with Israel.
Significantly, the Trump administration’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara raises concerns that Washington is legitimizing alleged oppression of populations in the area. Morocco’s claim to the area is not broadly recognized, and the United Nations considers Western Sahara as a “non-self-governing territory.”
The disputed area lies between southern Morocco and Mauritania.
Known to some as “Africa’s last colony,” it has been the heart of ambitious development plans by the Moroccan government, which is seeking to boost investments, create jobs, and appease the Sahrawi population that has long sought independence.
Morocco occupies about 75% of the territory, according to the CIA World Factbook. After Spain gave up the rule of the area in 1976, Morocco and the independentist Polisario Front fought over the territory in a bloody guerilla war that pushed much of the group and its supporters into Tindouf, Algeria. Tens of thousands of people have lived in refugee camps to this day.
Officials with the Polisario Front maintain that the Moroccan government is looking to monopolize Western Saharan resources, while giving little back to the local community of indigenous and other peoples. Fishing is a coveted industry in the region that employs more than 40,000 people in the Dakhla region alone.
In 2011, a decision by the European Union parliament to cancel a $46 million deal allowing trawlers from EU countries to fish in Moroccan waters prompted the kingdom to immediately ban all European fishing boats from its shores.
While clashes between pro-autonomy activists and Moroccan forces still occur in spurts, the region has seen relative calm through a 29-year ceasefire brokered by the UN. But last month, that standoff began to crumble after Morocco announced it would resume military operations nearby and Polisario Front declared it would no longer respect the truce.