US Confirms Full Sovereignty of Morocco over the Sahara in Exchange for Recognizing Israel

Moha Ennaji, a NESA Alumnus, is President of the South North Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Migration Studies in Morocco. His most recent books include Managing Cultural Diversity in the Mediterranean Region  and Multiculturalism and Democracy in North Africa: Aftermath of the Arab Spring.

8 January 2021 – Following recent developments in the Middle East, and especially after The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan recognized the State of Israel, Morocco adopted a similar pragmatic approach in its decision to resume bilateral relations with Israel in return for the US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

Morocco had first established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994 and cut them in 2002 after the Second Intifada.  As a token of appreciation for Morocco’s long-standing alliance, the United States decided on 12 December to open a consulate in Dakhla, one of the main cities in the Western Sahara, “for economic exchanges”.

Seventeen countries have already established consulates in Laayoune and Dakhla cities. While France, Egypt, the Emirates, and Bahrain have welcomed the accord, Algeria has protested, and Spain has expressed reservations claiming that it is the United Nations (UN) that should resolve this dispute.

The Trump administration, which had five months ago brokered special deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan to recognize the State of Israel, considers the Moroccan compromise of extended autonomy for the Sahara serious and credible and that it can constitute a solid basis for negotiations and permanent peace.

We must recall that Spain abandoned the Western Sahara in 1975 after The Hague International Court decided that, historically, there were links of allegiance between the inhabitants of the Sahara and the Moroccan monarchy. This area has been disputed ever since, with the Algerian-backed Polisario Front demanding independence and Morocco establishing its power over the territory. A war between the two sides ended in a ceasefire in 1991 and recurring endeavors to resolve the dispute have been unsuccessful.

Although the Secretary-General António Guterres indicated that UN will not change its opinion in dealing with the Sahara problem, the UN itself described Morocco’s proposal for autonomy as credible, realistic and serious, and insisted that the solution to this conflict must be through negotiations between the parties concerned.

In reaction to the American recognition of the Moroccan claim of the Sahara and the restoration of Moroccan-Israeli relations, the Justice and Development Party (the ruling Islamic party) believes that the deal is important and “opens new horizons to strengthen the Moroccan position in international circles”.

However, the party reiterated its position regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, recalling its “firm position towards the Zionist occupation and the crimes it commits against the Palestinian people, including the ongoing attacks on the Al-Aqsa mosque, as well as the confiscation of Palestinian land.”

Indeed, the American recognition of the Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara and Morocco’s decision to reestablish diplomatic relations with Israel pave the way for new cooperation and investments in the region. Being the only African country to have a free trade agreement with the United States, Morocco will benefit from this agreement, as an economic leader in Northern and Western Africa that has been struggling to eradicate Islamist terrorism.

The Israel Valley website explained that Rabat and Tel Aviv have complementarities to promote and have “a range of economic fields, such as telecommunications, aerospace technologies or for civil use, connected objects, cybersecurity, medical innovations, that could be the subject of close cooperation between the two countries.” The same source adds that 300 industrial units in the electronics field plan to set up in Morocco, creating more than 7,000 job opportunities. Stressing that the Kingdom is among the five largest economic partners of Israel in Africa, in particular alongside Egypt, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Uganda and Ghana, the digital media indicates that Morocco has a national economy “capable of achieving sustainable growth and reducing social imbalances, including poverty and unemployment”.

Israeli airline El Al has also affirmed that it will operate at least one flight a day to Morocco. The Israeli site “Jewish News Syndicate” specifies that the Israeli company will soon begin the preparation of direct flights to Casablanca. This news will undoubtedly further delight professionals in the tourism sector, knowing that Moroccan Jews represent 20% of the population in Israel.

On the other hand, as The Washington post of December 17, 2020 indicated, the issue of peace with Israel is indeed worthy of attention, but the benefits of any normalization steps will be very limited as long as Tel Aviv fails to resolve the conflict with its immediate neighbors, the Palestinians. Although President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu view normalization deals with Arab countries as an alternative to a real and final solution with the Palestinians, this does not actually work, and Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state will be in constant danger as long as the Palestinians are under occupation.

However, it is false to compare the Sahara issue with the Palestinian one. They are two very different problems. Resuming diplomatic relations with Israel will not negatively affect the relationship between Morocco and the Palestinian authority in the long term, because Morocco has been supporting the Palestinian people, especially the Jerusalemites, in preserving the Islamic heritage of the Holy City and the sanctity of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, through the Jerusalem Fund that Morocco established and supports financially in a strong way.

Morocco remains attached more than ever to the two-state solution, with East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian State, a position that it will continue to defend, through the Jerusalem Committee headed by the Moroccan monarch.

Today, what is urgent is the reunification of the Palestinians. It is inconceivable that, in light of these major developments that the world is witnessing, Hamas remains confined to the Gaza Strip, far from any serious dialogue with the Palestinian Authority controlling the West Bank. Palestinians should end this internal conflict, which has lasted for a long period before solutions can be envisioned.

Finally, although the American recognition of the Moroccan Sahara and the resumption of relations between Israel and Morocco are not unanimous, it is certain that they will mark a major turning point for the region both politically and economically to the extent that the Biden administration will find hard to change.

The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.