Israel and Morocco agreed on Thursday to normalize relations in a deal brokered with U.S. help, making Morocco the fourth Arab country to set aside hostilities with Israel in the past four months.
It joins the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in beginning to forge deals with Israel, driven in part by U.S.-led efforts to present a united front against Iran and roll back Tehran’s regional influence.
In a departure from longstanding U.S. policy, President Donald Trump agreed as part of the deal to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, a desert region where a decades-old territorial dispute has pitted Morocco against the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, a breakaway movement that seeks to establish an independent state.
President-elect Joe Biden, due to succeed Trump on Jan. 20, will face a decision whether to accept the U.S. deal on the Western Sahara, which no other Western nation has done. A Biden spokesman declined to comment.
While Biden is expected to move U.S. foreign policy away from Trump’s “America First” posture, the Democrat has indicated he will continue the pursuit of what Trump calls “the Abraham Accords” between Israel and Arab and Muslim nations.
Trump sealed the Israel-Morocco accord in a phone call with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI on Thursday, the White House said.
“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 wrote on Twitter.
Mohammed told Trump that Morocco intends to facilitate direct flights for Israeli tourists to and from Morocco, according to a statement from Morocco’s royal court.
“This will be a very warm peace. Peace has never – the light of peace on this Hanukkah day has never – shone brighter than today in the Middle East,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement, referring to a Jewish eight-day holiday starting on Thursday night.
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.
Egypt and UAE issued statements welcoming Morocco’s decision. Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979.
“This step, a sovereign move, contributes to strengthening our common quest for stability, prosperity, and just and lasting peace in the region,” Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, wrote on Twitter.
But Senator Jim Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee, denounced Trump’s “shocking and deeply disappointing” decision to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. Inhofe said people living in the area should vote in a referendum to decide their future.
“The president has been poorly advised by his team. He could have made this deal without trading the rights of a voiceless people,” Inhofe said in a statement.
A senior U.S. official said Trump knew about Inhofe’s opposition to recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. But Inhofe’s argument lost ground with the president when the senator refused to hold up the annual defense spending bill when Trump demanded it be used to repeal a law granting liability protection to tech companies, the official said.
The Morocco deal could be among the last that Trump’s team, led by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and U.S. envoy Avi Berkowitz, will negotiate before giving way to Biden’s incoming administration.
Kushner told reporters on a conference call it was inevitable that Saudi Arabia would eventually strike a similar deal with Israel. A U.S. official said the Saudis were not likely to act until after Biden takes office, and even then there would be strong internal opposition that could block such a move in the near term.
FULL DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS
Under the agreement, Morocco will establish full diplomatic relations and resume official contacts with Israel.
“They are going to reopen their liaison offices in Rabat and Tel Aviv immediately with the intention to open embassies. And they are going to promote economic cooperation between Israeli and Moroccan companies,” Kushner told Reuters.
Trump’s agreement to change U.S. policy on the Western Sahara was the linchpin for getting Morocco’s agreement and a major shift away from a mostly neutral stance.
In Rabat, Morocco’s royal court said Washington will open a consulate in Western Sahara as part of Morocco’s deal with Israel.
A White House proclamation said the United States believes that an independent Sahrawi state is “not a realistic option for resolving the conflict and that genuine autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty is the only feasible solution.”
“We urge the parties to engage in discussions without delay, using Morocco’s autonomy plan as the only framework to negotiate a mutually acceptable solution,” it said.
Washington had supported a 1991 ceasefire between Morocco and the Western Sahara’s Polisario Front independence movement that called for a referendum to resolve the issue. Last month, after a border incident, the Polisario pulled out of that deal and announced a return to armed struggle.
A representative of the Polisario Front said it “regrets highly” the U.S. change in policy, which it called “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.
Washington’s support for Moroccan sovereignty over the desert territory represents the biggest policy concession the United States has made so far in its quest to win Arab recognition of Israel.
For King Mohammed VI, that has trumped any fears of angering Moroccans who back Palestinian rights or harming his image as “defender of the faithful” among conservative Muslims by making peace with an Israeli state that has annexed East Jerusalem.
In a news conference to announce the decision in a royal proclamation, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita warned that “those who criticise this deal are against Morocco’s sovereignty over Sahara”.
How far that admonition was necessary is uncertain.
“This news came as a shock to me and to the Moroccan people. We strongly reject it,” said Khalid Soufiani, a pro-Palestinian activist.
However, while Islamist and pan-Arab parties have opposed normalising ties with Israel, others including Berber rights activists have supported it.
“Restoring ties with Israel is good news that serves Morocco’s supreme interests,” said Munir Kejji, an activist for the Amazigh Berber people.
The deal comes at a key moment in the long-frozen conflict in Western Sahara between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front independence movement, which erupted again last month after three decades of truce.
The U.S. move seems unlikely to lead other Western states – or the United Nations – to abandon their own longstanding position calling for a referendum to resolve the dispute. The U.N. said its stance was unchanged.
However, it adds momentum to a diplomatic campaign by Rabat that had already gathered steam this year and has so far led 17 African and Arab states to open consulates in Western Sahara.
POLISARIO VOWS TO FIGHT ON
The Polisario, which pulled out of a 1991 ceasefire deal last month following a border incident involving its supporters and Moroccan troops, said its guerrilla struggle would continue.
Three decades on from that truce, Morocco’s military has grown its strength and technological capabilities with U.S. help. It is currently negotiating the purchase of new drones with Washington.
Though the Polisario has announced constant bombardment of Moroccan frontier defences deep in the desert since quitting the truce, neither side has reported any deaths from fighting.
Peace with Israel may be a smaller step for Morocco than for some other Arab states.
Morocco is the ancestral home of nearly 1 million Israeli Jews and Bourita said 70,000 Israelis visited the kingdom last year alone. It opened a liaison office in Israel in 1994, but closed it in 2002 during the second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising.
Still, after rumours earlier this year that Morocco would agree a deal with Israel, Prime Minister Saad Dine El Otmani, head of the moderate Islamist PJD party, said Rabat rejected “any normalisation of ties with the Zionist entity”.
King Mohammed sought to sweeten the pill by saying in his proclamation that he still backs a two state solution and regards Jerusalem as a sacred city for three religions.
But in agreeing Thursday’s deal, he is betting that nationalist fervour over Western Sahara carries more weight than popular support for the Palestinian cause.