Morocco normalizes ties with Israel and wins Trump nod on Sahara dispute

·4-min read

Morocco on Thursday became the fourth Arab nation this year to normalize relations with Israel as President Donald Trump in turn fulfilled a decades-old goal of Morocco by backing its contested sovereignty in Western Sahara.

With barely a month left in his presidency, Trump, a staunch backer of Israel, tweeted that Morocco and the Jewish state had agreed to ties in a "massive breakthrough for peace in the Middle East!"

The White House said that Trump also "recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara territory," infuriating the Algerian-backed Polisario Front which controls about one-fifth of the vast, arid region.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Morocco and Israel would reopen liaison offices in Tel Aviv and Rabat, which Morocco closed in 2000 at the start of the second Palestinian uprising, and establish full diplomatic relations "as rapidly as possible."

Morocco, which has quietly let in Israeli travelers in recent years, will also permit direct flights with Israel, Netanyahu said.

"I've always believed that this historic day would come," Netanyahu said in a televised address on the first day of the Hanukkah holiday.

Morocco confirmed a deal with Israel but, like previous Arab countries, was guarded in its language.

The palace statement said that King Mohammed VI in a telephone call with Trump agreed to diplomatic relations with Israel "with minimal delay."

A senior Moroccan foreign ministry official, in a briefing in Rabat, characterized the move not as recognition of Israel but as a "normalization" that restores past relations.

- Another win for Israel -

Trump -- due to leave office on January 20, despite unprecedented and so far failed attempts to overturn the election result -- has racked up historic advances since September in bringing Israel and Arab states together.

Morocco follows the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in what the Trump administration calls the Abraham Accords.

The push has shattered once solid Arab solidarity behind the Palestinians' struggle for statehood, with Gulf Arabs seeing common cause with Netanyahu and Trump on confronting Iran.

Previously, only neighboring Egypt and Jordan had made peace with Israel and, until a few months ago, many doubted that other Arab nations would recognize Israel so long as Netanyahu resists concessions to the Palestinians.

In Morocco, the palace said the king spoke by telephone with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and assured him that he "would never relinquish his role in defending the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people."

Hazem Qassem, spokesman for the Islamist group Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip, condemned Morocco's move as a "political sin" that would encourage Israeli occupation.

- Coup for Morocco -

Morocco shares Gulf Arabs' concerns about Iran, and in 2018 it severed diplomatic relations as it accused the clerical state of backing the Polisario, charges denied by Tehran.

But Morocco won a major prize through its recognition of Israel -- Trump declaring US support for its sovereignty over Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony whose status has been disputed for more than four decades.

The Polisario, which is made up of the local Sahrawi people and fought a war for independence from 1975 to 1991, in a statement condemned "in the strongest terms" Trump's attempt to give to Morocco "that which does not belong to him."

The Polisario, which seeks a referendum on self-determination, enjoys support from neighboring Algeria, which has also welcomed thousands of Sahrawi refugees.

Morocco controls 80 percent of the disputed land, including phosphate deposits and the fishing waters.

"Frankly, there's just been no progress on a resolution," said Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and Middle East pointman.

The Trump administration is "recognizing the inevitability of what is going to occur, but it also can break the logjam to help advance the issues in the Western Sahara," Kushner told reporters.

"We want the Polisario people to have a better opportunity to live a better life and the president felt like this conflict was holding them back."

The United Nations, which has led years of slow-moving diplomacy as well as a peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, and former colonial power Spain both said they had not changed their positions that the conflict needs to be resolved under Security Council resolutions, which call on all sides to reach a mutually acceptable solution.

President-elect Joe Biden's transition team declined immediate comment. Biden has backed Arab recognition of Israel but major diplomatic shifts are unusual for a lame-duck administration.

Western Sahara saw a brief spurt of interest under Trump's former national security advisor John Bolton, who had tried to broker a UN-led agreement in the 1990s.

Bolton has been critical of what he saw as Moroccan intransigence and successfully pushed for new negotiations but he was fired by Trump last year.


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