Morocco to normalize ties with Israel in deal with Trump over Western Sahara

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Morocco has agreed to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, President Trump announced on Thursday. The Moroccan decision comes as part of a deal that includes U.S. recognition of the disputed territory of Western Sahara as part of Morocco.

Why it matters: Morocco is the fourth Arab country to move toward normalization with Israel in the last four months as part of the Trump administration’s “Abraham Accords” initiative. But the deal also involves a change in long-standing U.S. policy with just six weeks left in Trump’s term.

Behind the scenes: The negotiations around this deal started two years ago but intensified in the last few months. Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner and special envoy Avi Berkowitz negotiated directly with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita.

The other side: While the normalization deal is a win for Israel and a significant achievement for Trump, recognition of Western Sahara as part of Morocco is a big shift in U.S. policy — and a major diplomatic achievement for Morocco.

  • Western Sahara is a sparsely populated, disputed territory that borders Morocco on the northwest corner of Africa.
  • It was formerly controlled by Spain and is now claimed by Morocco despite international opposition and fierce resistance from the indigenous population.
  • State of play: A violent insurgency ended in 1991 after 16 years, but the matter remains unresolved. Several weeks ago, fighting erupted again between the Moroccan army and Sahrawi rebels.

What’s next: Efforts are underway to coordinate a three-way call tomorrow between Trump, Netanyahu and Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, Israeli officials tell me. It’s possible that Bourita will represent Morocco on the call rather than the king.

The U.S. is now the only Western country to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. President-elect Biden will have to decide whether to reverse Trump’s decision after taking office in January.

  • Such a move would not be easy for Biden to make, because it could cause the Morocco-Israeli normalization process to collapse.

Update: Kushner said in a briefing with reporters that Morocco had agreed to resume official contacts with Israel, allow Israeli airlines to use Moroccan airspace, and begin direct flights between the countries.

  • Kushner said Morocco and Israel would promote deeper business ties, open diplomatic liaison offices in Rabat and Tel Aviv, and later open embassies.
  • Minutes before he announced the deal, Trump spoke on the phone with King Mohammed. Both reaffirmed their commitments under the deal, per the White House.
  • According to the Moroccan royal court, Trump said on the call that the U.S. had decided to open a consulate in Dakhla in Western Sahara, mainly to “encourage American investments.”

King Mohammed spoke with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas today and stressed that his country “stands by a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and sees negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians as the only way to resolve the conflict, according to the royal court statement.

Flashback: Israel and Morocco have had a secret relationship dating back to the 1960s through their respective intelligence services.

  • In the late 1970s, Morocco mediated between Israel and Egypt to help them move towards the historic peace deal.
  • In the 1990s, after the Oslo Accords, Israel and Morocco established diplomatic relations and opened diplomatic missions in Tel Aviv and Rabat.
  • In 1994, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres visited Morocco as the guests of the late King Hassan II.
  • But in 2000, after the second Intifada, Morocco cut off relations with Israel and both countries shut down their diplomatic offices.

In the 20 years since, there have been several secret meetings between Israeli officials and Moroccan foreign ministers.

  • In September 2018, Netanyahu met secretly with Bourita, the Moroccan foreign minister, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

What they’re saying:

  • “Today, I signed a proclamation recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara,” Trump tweeted. “Morocco’s serious, credible, and realistic autonomy proposal is the ONLY basis for a just and lasting solution for enduring peace and prosperity!”
  • “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!”

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Trump hands Morocco a long-awaited breakthrough over Western Sahara

President Trump announced a deal with Morocco on Thursday that included two major provisions: Morocco will establish diplomatic relations with Israel, and the U.S. will recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

Why it matters: The U.S. is now the only Western country to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, reversing decades of U.S. policy. With six weeks left in his term, Trump provided Morocco a diplomatic breakthrough for which it has lobbied for decades.

Scoop: Fallout between Trump and top GOP senator made Morocco-Israel deal possible

A fallout between President Trump and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, led to the breakthrough that resulted in the Morocco-Israel normalization deal, sources briefed on the matter told me.

Why it matters: Inhofe is Washington’s most avid supporter of the Polisario Front — a Sahrawi rebel national liberation movement aiming to end Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara. He has travelled many times to Algeria for meetings with Polisario leaders.

  • Inhofe is one of Trump’s closest allies in the Senate and has asked the president over the last two years not to recognize Moroccan sovereignty in the Western Sahara.

Behind the scenes: Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner and special envoy Avi Berkowitz have been speaking with the Moroccan government for more than two years about the possibility of normalizing relations with Israel in exchange for recognition of the Western Sahara.

  • The original idea came from a group of former Israeli officials led by ex-Mossad deputy director Ram Ben Barak. His company has done business in Morocco with Yariv Elbaz, a Moroccan Jew who is one of the main food retailers in Morocco and a close associate of Moroccan foreign minister Nasser Bourita.
  • In 2018, Ben Barak and Elbaz spoke to both Netanyahu’s national security advisers, former U.S. special envoy Jason Greenblatt and Bourita, and raised the idea of a Western Sahara-for-Israeli-normalization deal. The initiative didn’t make any progress, but a connection was created between Elbaz and Netanyahu’s aides, as well as Elbaz and the White House — namely 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.

Kushner met during the visit with King Mohammed VI, who raised the issue of U.S. recognition of the Western Sahara. This meeting made clear to the White House how important the issue was to the Moroccans.

  • After the visit, a direct channel was created between Kushner’s team and Moroccan foreign minister Bourita. The Moroccan foreign minister visited the White House several weeks later to follow up on the talks.
  • Bourita had separate meetings with Kushner and with Ivanka Trump, raising the Western Sahara issue in both. Kushner decided to push forward with the initiative after Bourita’s visit.
  • The Israeli government encouraged the White House several times in the last two years to pursue this track in the hopes that it could lead the Moroccans to agree to normalize relations.

Kushner, Berkowitz and Bourita effectively reached a deal a little more than a year ago, but Inhofe joined with then-national security adviser John Bolton to vehemently oppose it. Trump, who was close to Inhofe and needed his political support, agreed not to move forward with the deal.

Driving the news: Relations between Trump and Inhofe soured about a week ago over the National Defense Authorization Act, a key military funding bill that Congress has passed every year since 1961, sources who were involved in the matter told me.

  • Trump wanted Inhofe to include provisions in the bill to repeal protections for social media companies and to kill a provision to rename military installations that carry names of Confederate leaders.
  • Inhofe rejected both demands and, as Axios’ Alayna Treene reported, the two had a difficult phone call in which Inhofe leveled with Trump and said: “This is the only chance to get our bill passed.”
  • An angry Trump went to his Twitter account to hit back at Inhofe, claiming his position would harm U.S. national security and election integrity and reiterating his threat to veto the bill.

Sources who were briefed on the matter told me Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows, Kushner and Berkowitz saw this as an opening to get the Morocco deal done.

  • They raised the issue with President Trump and he gave them a green light. They then checked with the Moroccans to see whether they were still interested in the deal from last year. The Moroccans said yes.
  • Surprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wasn’t all that happy. An Israeli official told me Netanyahu didn’t like part of the language in the statement the Moroccans were going to issue and was upset he would not be participating in the phone call between Trump and the king of Morocco. Netanyahu’s office denied to Axios that he was upset.
  • Another person who wasn’t happy was Inhofe. After the announcement of the deal on Thursday, Inhofe spoke on the Senate floor and called the White House’s decision “shocking and deeply disappointing.” He added that he was “saddened that the rights of the Western Sahara people have been traded away.”

The big picture: Western Sahara is a sparsely populated, disputed territory that borders Morocco on the northwest corner of Africa.

  • It was formerly controlled by Spain and is now 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.

Morocco Joins List of Arab Nations to Begin Normalizing Relations With Israel

Morocco follows Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates in setting aside generations of hostilities toward the Jewish state, part of a major foreign policy effort of the Trump administration.

Morocco has agreed to a rapprochement with Israel in return for American recognition of the kingdom’s sovereignty over a long-disputed territory, under a deal announced on Thursday that gives President Trump another diplomatic victory in his final weeks in office.

With the agreement, which has been under discussion since 2017, Morocco becomes the fourth Muslim-majority state to pledge warmer official relations with Israel this fall under accords brokered by the Trump administration.

It undercuts an independence movement in the Western Sahara region, which has rejected Morocco’s claims of sovereignty, with United Nations support, and could fuel instability in that yearslong dispute.

The Moroccan government downplayed the announcement from Washington that the move amounted to a full or new normalization with Israel, noting years of ongoing if opaque relations. 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.”

Mr. Trump announced Morocco’s inclusion in the Abraham accords that his administration has fostered, declaring it on Twitter as “a massive breakthrough” for Middle East peace. Morocco joins Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates in agreeing to set aside generations of hostilities toward Israel over the Palestinian conflict as part of a campaign to stabilize the Middle East and North Africa.

Briefing reporters in Washington, Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law, said the agreement called for Morocco to open full diplomatic relations and formalize economic ties with Israel. It will also allow overflights of its air space and direct commercial flights to Moroccan airports from Tel Aviv, Mr. Kushner said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel celebrated the announcement at a prearranged, televised Hanukkah lighting ceremony in Jerusalem, accompanied by David M. Friedman, the American ambassador to Israel.

“There have been strong ties between Morocco and the Jewish people throughout the entire modern era,” Mr. Netanyahu said. He predicted “a very warm peace,” given that Israel and Morocco have maintained some ties for more than half a century.

Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu have made the accords — normalized relations between Israel and Muslim states that long have been aligned with the cause of the Palestinians — a focus of their respective campaigns to hold onto power.

Mr. Trump lost the November election to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., and Mr. Netanyahu is potentially facing a new round of elections in Israel amid a paralyzed government there.

Thursday’s agreement also hands Morocco’s monarch, King Mohammed VI, a long-demanded prize: American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara territory.

Recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara is an unusual move from the United States, and comes at a critical time for the region.

After years of war, the U.N. brokered a cease-fire in 1991 that called for a referendum on independence for Western Sahara. Blocked by Morocco, that referendum has still not been held.

Last month, after Morocco launched a military operation in a buffer strip patrolled by U.N. peacekeepers, the Western Sahara’s pro-independence Polisario Front declared war and threatened a full-blown military conflict.

“It’s something that can pretty dramatically escalate, and Trump has just lit it on fire,” said Hannah Armstrong, an independent analyst who has worked on the Maghreb and Sahel regions for over a decade.

Mr. Kushner suggested that recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over an area where it mostly already maintains administrative control could “possibly break the logjam.”

“This is an issue that’s been out there for a long time, and quite frankly, there’s just been no progress on a resolution,” he said. As part of the recognition agreement, the United States diplomatic mission to Morocco will open a consulate in Dakhla, a city in Western Sahara.

It will be difficult for Mr. Biden’s incoming administration to return to a role as an impartial actor committed to resolving the dispute. A spokesman for Mr. Biden’s transition team declined to comment on Thursday.

In a rebuke to the Trump administration from a fellow Republican, Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the “rights of the Western Saharan people have been traded away.”

The deal came together with the help of a Moroccan investor, Yariv Elbaz, who does business in Israel, and acted as a go-between for Washington and Rabat. In talks dating to 2017, officials discussed the promise of American recognition of Western Sahara as a condition of warming ties with Israel.

But the Moroccan king was deeply hesitant to jeopardize his standing in the Arab world, according to two Moroccan officials briefed on those efforts who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss them.

Mr. Elbaz later informed the Moroccan government that the Trump administration was willing to help facilitate as much as $3 billion in investments, much of that earmarked for Moroccan banks, hotels and a renewable energy company owned by the king, the officials said. The effort was to be coordinated by the United States International Development Finance Corporation.

A senior Trump administration official confirmed on Thursday that the development office was considering investments worth up to $3 billion in Morocco over three years, but said they were not linked to the reconciliation with Israel.

Morocco’s government now finds itself in the same uncomfortable position of having to explain its warming relations with Israel — at the cost of longtime sympathy for Palestinians — as other nations that have signed onto the Abraham accords.

“The move shows that #Morocco’s regime is willing to sell its soul to maintain its illegal occupation of parts of #WesternSahara,” Sidi Omar, the Polisario Front’s representative at the United Nations, wrote on Twitter.

Mohamed Daadaoui, a Moroccan academic, noted that Morocco and Israel already had economic, military and cultural ties. “Not sure this is the best decision #Morocco should make right now domestically,” he wrote on Twitter.

As the deal was being announced in Washington, King Mohammed VI called Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader. Nasser Bourita, the Moroccan foreign minister, said the king affirmed his commitment “to the Palestinian cause, which remains unchanged.”

Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian leader and politician, denounced Mr. Trump’s administration as “scrambling to do anything it can to extract concessions and benefits for Israel.”

“There is something extremely immoral in the way they are exploiting countries’ needs and demands,” she said.

More than one million Israelis are of Moroccan descent, Mr. Kushner said, most of whom arrived in the 1950s. Many Israelis have visited Morocco in recent years, traveling via third countries but entering on Israeli passports.

Today, Morocco has a Jewish population of about 4,000, said Samuel L. Kaplan, the U.S. ambassador to Rabat from 2009 to 2013. That is down from more than 200,000 Jews who lived in Morocco when Israel was established in 1948 but who then began responding to calls to immigrate to Israel.

The two countries have long had intelligence ties, including a shared operation in 1995 to recruit Osama bin Laden’s Moroccan secretary to gather information and ultimately assassinate him. Israel has in the past also lobbied the United States to provide Morocco with military equipment.

Liaison offices between Israel and Morocco were established in 1994 after the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements known as the Oslo Accords, but they closed after the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 2000. They will be reopened as part of Thursday’s agreement, Mr. Bourita said.

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If the two countries ultimately open embassies, Israel’s new agreement with Morocco would be similar to the accords that the Trump administration helped broker with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in September.

By contrast, Sudan has stopped short of declaring full and normalized relations with Israel and recently threatened to withdraw from the agreement if Congress does not give it immunity from terrorism lawsuits that families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks want to bring against the country for harboring Mr. bin Laden years before the attacks.

The Trump administration had long hoped Saudi Arabia would join the push for normalizing relations with Israel. So far, the Saudis have insisted that more progress must come first on peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

But Thursday’s announcement could help smooth the way, given the close relations between Morocco and Saudi Arabia and the special bond between the royal houses of those two countries.

Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the deal “will make it easier for Saudi Arabia to take the step when it is ready to do so.”

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