Why Is Morocco Holding Back on Diplomatic Relations With Israel?

It has a lot more to do with Biden than the Palestinians, experts say, as Rabat awaits confirmation from the incoming U.S. administration on its plans for Western Sahara

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
King Mohammed VI (C) flanked by his son (R), during a meeting with U.S. Presidential advisor Jared Kushner and Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben Shabbat (L), Rabat, December 22, 2020.
King Mohammed VI (C) flanked by his son (R), during a meeting with U.S. Presidential advisor Jared Kushner and Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben Shabbat (L), Rabat, December 22, 2020.Credit: - - AFP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

At the beginning of the week, a delegation from Morocco arrived in Israel with the goal of preparing the ground for the reopening of liaison offices in the two countries, which were closed down 20 years ago. This was part of the understandings reached last week in Rabat during the quick visit of a joint American and Israeli delegation.

A high-level Moroccan delegation is now expected to follow in two weeks – unlike the one that came this week and is described as “technical” – to celebrate the opening of the liaison office. When will an official Moroccan embassy be opened, and when will full diplomatic relations be established between the two countries? That remains unknown.

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The United States and Israel have tried to paint the understandings reached at the beginning of the month as part of the framework of the Abraham Accords, the normalization agreements signed during the summer.

In a statement issued by the U.S. State Department immediately after the announcement of the tripartite agreement between the United States, Israel and Morocco – which included the controversial American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara – the act was described as extending the Abraham Accords.

In Jerusalem, the day before the joint delegation flew to Rabat, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, echoed the message: “Tomorrow we will very proudly advance the Abraham Accords with the first direct commercial flight on El Al from Israel to Morocco.”

Morocco is not pleased. In messages it passed on to Jerusalem, senior Moroccan officials emphasized that the term “normalization” was unacceptable to them, because even after the closing of the liaison offices in 2000, the two countries still entertained a wide range of ties. Morocco is not starting its relations with Israel from zero.

But the kingdom’s insistence not to join the celebrations and avoid any statement that commits them any farther down the line does not come only from rhetorical rectitude.

For Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Moroccans simply want to wait and see whether the new U.S. administration will adopt the decision made by the Trump administration to recognize its sovereignty over Western Sahara.

“I suspect, although nobody has said this publicly, that the Moroccans will withhold any additional steps toward full diplomatic relations with Israel until it is clear that the Biden administration affirms recognition of Western Sahara,” says Satloff, an expert on the disputed region.

“What you have is basically American recognition for Western Sahara in exchange for resumption of liaison offices and inauguration of direct flights, which is no small achievement. Don’t get me wrong, but anything beyond that is going to wait to see if the Biden administration affirms it,” he added.

A young girl waves a Moroccan and a Palestinian flag during a protest against normalizing relations with Israel, in Rabat, Morocco, Friday, September 18, 2020. Credit: Mosa'ab Elshamy / AP

The Israeli delegation headed by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat that visited Morocco last week signed four separate agreements, including on the operation of direct flights between the two countries and visa waivers for diplomats. A joint declaration was also signed by the three countries, including an announcement of “the opening of a new era in the relations between the Kingdom of Morocco and the State of Israel.”

Satloff pointed to a “huge gap” between what Trump promised when he announced the “historic breakthrough” in relations between Israel and Morocco, and what was achieved in practice.

“The United States, in fact, did not achieve what the president said this agreement achieved: full diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel. That has yet to happen,” says Satloff. “There’s a huge gap between what the president and the White House announced and what the Moroccans actually agreed to. And in fact, that gap remains. The Moroccans have been quite consistent from the very beginning. What they were hoping to get from this agreement, they received up front, and essentially they’re paying on the installment plan.”

Moroccan media did not focus on the agreement with Israel when reporting on the tripartite deal, and it is no accident, says Einat Levy, who specializes in Israeli-Moroccan relations at think tank Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. “The headlines highlighted the American recognition of Western Sahara. Only deep down in the text was there a mention of the relations with Israel,” says Levy.

Even though Israel and Morocco had diplomatic relations back in the period from 1994 to 2000, and even though tens of thousands of Israeli tourists have visited Morocco every year since then, there was still something in the renewal of diplomatic relations between the two countries that was “not easy to digest” for most Moroccans, says Levy.

“As far as public opinion there is concerned, it can’t be that there is peace with Israel without there being some type of agreement to settle the conflict with the Palestinians,” she added. “The entire story with [Western] Sahara was meant to sweeten this pill, because there is not really anything in exchange for the Palestinians.”

Morocco’s hesitant approach to renewing ties with Israel – at least in comparison to the demonstrative enthusiasm of the countries that signed the Abraham Accords – can also be explained by the country's special relationship with the Palestinians. One of the first steps King Mohammed VI took after the dramatic announcement by Trump was to call the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas – two weeks before he bothered to pick up the phone to Netanyahu on the matter – in an attempt to calm him.

Mohammed VI, who serves as the chairman of the Al-Quds Committee of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, promised Abbas during the call that the actions agreed with Trump and those that will be taken with Israel will not influence Morocco’s commitment to the Palestinian national issue in any way, or Morocco’s determination to continue to work to achieve a comprehensive and just peace in the Middle East.

A pickup truck passes by a hilltop manned by Moroccan soldiers on a road between Morocco and Mauritania in Guerguerat located in the Western Sahara, November 23, 2020.Credit: FADEL SENNA / AFP

Sarah Feuer, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, says the king was “not willing to go so far as to call this full-blown normalization, for the obvious reason: He’s on record for several decades lending a lot of at least rhetorical support to the Palestinians and to the two-state solution generally, and he’s been very consistent on that, and I think he just could not take the step in the way the Emiratis and some others did, given his ongoing commitment to the Palestinians.”

“The fact they’re opening liaison offices is significant because there’s no breakthrough on the Palestinians, but I think if the Sahara decision is upheld, they will roll this out in the next few months,” she added.

The new U.S. administration has a number of options for now concerning the Western Sahara, says Satloff. They can decide that they are rescinding Trump’s decision, suspending it or carrying out only parts of it, he says. But if Biden decides to adopt the change in policy forced on him, this does not necessarily mean giving up on the goal of settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“There is not necessarily a contradiction between recognizing Moroccan sovereignty and supporting mediation over the ultimate, final resolution of the conflict. In fact, that’s the U.S. position regarding Jerusalem right now. Ironically, I think we can apply U.S. policy over Jerusalem to U.S. policy over Western Sahara,” says Satloff.

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