Morocco Agrees to Normalize Ties With Israel in Exchange for U.S. Recognition of Western Sahara Sovereignty

The deal will include direct flights between the two countries ■ Defense Minister Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi learned about agreement from Americans, not Netanyahu

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This combination of file pictures from December 10, 2020 shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Morocco's King Mohammed VI
This combination of file pictures from December 10, 2020 shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Morocco's King Mohammed VICredit: MAYA ALLERUZZO TASOS KATOPODIS H

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday that Morocco and Israel have agreed to normalize relations, adding that he has signed a proclamation recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. 

"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!" Trump tweeted.

In a statement to the press, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Morocco's King Mohammed VI for his "historic decision" to sign the deal and promised a "very warm peace" between the two countries.

Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz also welcomed the agreement, saying it would bolster both security and economic interests of both countries. He also thanked "the American administration, which acts tirelessly to strengthen Israel and stabilize the entire region."

According to sources familiar with the matter, Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi learned of the agreement from American officials, not the prime minister. The Foreign Ministry later released a statement confirming this, saying that Gantz and Ashkenazi were briefed by the White House a few weeks ago.

The Moroccan royal court also said that King Mohammed VI had a phone call with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to reaffirm his commitment to a two-state solution.

King Mohammed VI later added that the deal in no way affected the kingdom's "determination to continue working for a comprehensive and just peace in the Middle East."

A senior Palestinian Authority official said the PA had "no interest to respond at this time or confront any factors in Morocco. The decision not to respond may be related to King Mohammed's chairmanship of the Arab League's Al-Quds Committee, whose agenda is to preserve the Arab-Islamic nature of Jerusalem.

Hamas responded to the deal, calling it "a political sin," while Islamic Jihad described it as "a betrayal of Palestine and Jerusalem."

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi wrote on Twitter on Thursday that he valued the agreement because it strengthens regional stability and cooperation.

Israel and Morocco have had covert relations for decades, and the latter openly accepts tourists from Israel. Following the Oslo Accords, ties solidified publically, with then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres attended the opening of an Israeli representation office. After the Second Intifada erupted in 2000, ties became secretive again.

"Morocco recognized the United States in 1777.  It is thus fitting we recognize their sovereignty over the Western Sahara," Trump added in another tweet. "Morocco's serious, credible, and realistic autonomy proposal is the ONLY basis for a just and lasting solution for enduring peace and prosperity!"

A representative of the Polisario Front independence movement for Western Sahara said it "regrets highly" the U.S. decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the territory, adding the decision was "strange but not surprising".

"This will not change an inch of the reality of the conflict and the right of the people of Western Sahara to self determination," the Polisario's Europe representative Oubi Bchraya said. The Polisario would continue its struggle.

Western Sahara was occupied by Spain until 1976. Morocco then claimed most of the territory but faced guerrilla resistance from the local population.

The United Nations maintains that the Sahrawi people have a legitimate right to self-determination, but the status of the desert region remains under dispute. In fact, in an October session of the UN Security Council, the U.S. backed renewing the mandate of UN forces in the Western Sahara.

Morocco is the fourth country since August to strike a deal aimed at normalizing relations with Israel. The others were the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

The United Arab Emirates welcomed Morocco's decision to resume diplomatic relations and communications with Israel, crown prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan wrote on twitter.

"This step, a sovereign move, contributes to strengthening our common quest for stability, prosperity, and just and lasting peace in the region".

Bahrain King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa also praised the Moroccan king's decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, according to state news agency BNA. The statement also welcomed U.S. recognition of Morocco's sovereignty over the Western Sahara region.

Palestinians have been critical of the normalization deals, saying Arab countries have set back the cause of peace by abandoning a longstanding demand that Israel give up land for a Palestinian state before it can receive recognition.

With Trump to leave office on January 20, the Morocco deal could be among the last his team, led by Kushner and U.S. envoy Avi Berkowitz, is able to negotiate before they give way to President-elect Joe Biden's incoming administration.

Much of the momentum behind the deal-making has been to present a united front against Iran and roll back its regional influence.

The Trump White House has tried to get Saudi Arabia to sign on to a normalization deal with Israel, believing if the Saudis agreed other Arab nations would follow, but the Saudis have signaled they are not ready.

One more Middle East breakthrough is possible. Last week Kushner and his team traveled to Saudi Arabia and Qatar seeking an end to a three-year rift between Doha and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

A tentative deal has been reached on this front but it was far from clear whether a final agreement to end a blockade of Qatar will be sealed. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have maintained a diplomatic, trade and travel embargo on Qatar since mid-2017.

While Biden is expected to move U.S. foreign policy away from Trump's "America First" posture, he has indicated he will continue the pursuit of what Trump calls "the Abraham Accords" between Israel and Arab and Muslim nations.

Trump and NetanyahuCredit: Amos Ben Gershon / GPO

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