Morocco's normalisation trade-off: Western Sahara for Palestine

Morocco's normalisation trade-off: Western Sahara for Palestine
Comment: In exchange for recognition of Israel, the US has provided Morocco the opportunity to realize two of its longstanding ambitions. But many remain unconvinced, writes Khadija Moshen-Finan.
7 min read
19 Dec, 2020
A Moroccan man protests against his country's recognition of Israel [Getty]
The deal is an attractive trade-off for Morocco, and its details have already been under discussion for several years, via visits by Jared Kushner himself, relentless work by the special envoy Avi Berkowitz and meetings between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and King Mohamed VI.

There were few barriers to the recognition by Donald Trump's United States of the Moroccan claim on Western Sahara: Algeria's political leadership has been caught up with its own internal troubles, with an absent head of state, a weakened staff and an executive fighting to re-establish its status with the population.

The UN, tasked since 1991 with the resolution of the Western Saharan conflict, has not accomplished its mission, failing for over a year to even appoint a special envoy to it. The moment was ideal for the Moroccan sovereign to shake hands with the Americans.

More problematic for Mohamed VI is selling to his own population, who have demonstrated in large numbers against injustice towards Palestinians, the idea that Morocco should align itself with countries seen as "traitors" to Palestine.

That said, it's been an open secret for some time that diplomatic relations between Israel and Morocco were being re-established; the questions were only when exactly it would happen and how the Moroccan monarchy would frame the announcement. It was in fact rushed out in the form of a tweet by Donald Trump, part of the outgoing president's attempts to persuade the world that he wrought major change in the Middle East, by leading several Arab states - including some major players - to recognise Israel and form strategic and economic partnerships with it.

The moment was ideal for the Moroccan sovereign to shake hands with the Americans

Amir Ohana, Israel's Minister for Internal Security, then announced that Morocco had joined the group of countries that conduct military exercises with the Israeli army.

An attractive trade-off

For Rabat, Trump's offer was too good to refuse. Morocco has been embroiled in a territorial conflict for the last 45 years, battered by the Polisario Front, which, supported by Algeria, demands sovereignty over the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara.

Morocco refused to organise an independence referendum on the issue for fear of losing it. Since the late 1990s, it has opted instead to accord autonomy to Western Sahara as part of a sovereign Morocco, even proposing an autonomy plan in 2007. In recent years, however, the kingdom has recognised the difficulties inherent in the operation of that autonomy, given the centralisation of Morocco decision-making, as well as realising that it could encourage more similar claims, such as from the Rif area, where a movement rose up violently against central control in 2018, and was equally violently crushed.

US recognition of the Moroccan claim on Western Sahara will likely precipitate a string of similar recognitions in Europe, the Arab world and even Africa. This will allow Morocco to finally defeat its adversary, abandoning the options for independence and autonomy which the UN has until now imposed on the conflict, which have resulted in stalemate.

Morocco's new relationship with Israel will offer other advantages too. The security and military co-operation that was already taking place behind the scenes can now be done in the open. Economic co-operation is also expected, as soon as embassies have been opened and direct flights launched between the two countries. There is no doubt that the 700,000 Israelis of Moroccan origin will be tempted to spend their holidays in Dakhla or other cities, to visit the graves of their ancestors or the shrines of Moroccan saints.

'His Majesty's Jews'

Described as "warm" by Benyamin Netanyahu, the new diplomatic relations are a delicate subject in Morocco. The communications team at the royal palace, as well as the country's journalists, have dug deep into their country's history to attempt to explain and justify to the Moroccan people a link that goes against the grain for many.

The officially-aligned news outlet Le 360 explains that "a long history amply justifies the rapprochement which will henceforth become official". The political move is attributed to the long history on the part of the Moroccan monarchy of protecting the country's Jews: "Was Mohamed V not considered 'just amongst all nations' for his resistance to the racist laws of the Vichy regime, which saved the Moroccan Jews from the grip of the Nazis and the Shoah?"

The king is yet to convince either his own people or the international community of the merit of his actions and his political choices

A tangential connection, perhaps, but the royal palace has always been vocal about its role in protecting Moroccan Jews during the Vichy regime. They numbered nearly 265,000 at the time, descendants of Berbers or of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. Many then left, mostly to Israel, and fewer than 8,000 remain in the country today.

In terms of national origin, Moroccan Jews are the second largest community in Israel. They have never cut ties with their country, and often return for holidays. The Moroccan state has also maintained links with its Jewish diaspora, welcoming experts, calling on consultants and appointing a political advisor, André Azoulay.

By emphasising the country's long history of links with its Jews in Israel, the monarchy has attempted to divest this political act of any Zionist significance, connecting it instead with the Jewish part of its identity that Morocco has always recognised. It has remained silent on the reasons that led most of "His Majesty's Jews", so protected and appreciated, to leave the kingdom.

As in other Arab countries, the birth of the state of Israel in 1948 precipitated violent demonstrations, resulting in more than 40 deaths during the riots of Oujda and Jerada, and leading to the departure of 150-180,000 Moroccan Jews between 1950 and 1967. There were further violent demonstrations during the war of 1967.

A still-to-be-tested mediating role

Read more: How Morocco-Israel normalisation
could push Algeria closer to Russia

Rabat has also explained its recognition of Israel by evoking the role played by Hassan II in the Middle East peace process. Le 360 asks, "Did the late Hassan II not play a significant role in the peace process, mediating between several US presidents, Israeli government chiefs and Palestinian leaders? Was he not a key figure at the September 1978 peace accord at Camp David, alongside Anwar al-Sadat and Menahem Begin and under the aegis of US president Jimmy Carter?" 

Royal communications likewise highlight Morocco's role in encouraging links between populations in the region for the promotion of peace. They stress that the decision will not affect Morocco's positive engagement with the Palestinian cause. The monarchy declares itself in favour of a two- state solution, claiming it will be able to advocate more easily on this and other issues now it has chosen to become a partner of Israel.

As the president of the Al-Quds committee, Mohamed VI continues to emphasise the need to preserve the special status of Jerusalem, as well as to accept the Al-Aqsa mosque, as required by the Al-Aqsa appeal, signed by himself, as Commander of the Faithful, and Pope Francis during the papal visit to Rabat on 30 March 2019. The royal communications make no reference to UN security council resolution no. 1397 (2002), which makes recognition of the state of Israel conditional on the existence of a Palestinian state.

Beyond the Israel-Palestine conflict, Morocco understands that it will play a supported role in the region, working in particular towards a resolution of the crisis currently raging in the Gulf Co-operation Council. Suffice to say, the role that Mohamed VI's Morocco has taken on in this conflict-scarred part of the world is a demanding one. The king is yet to convince either his own people or the international community of the merit of his actions and his political choices.

Khadija Moshen-Finan is a lecturer at the University of Paris I and a researcher in identities, international relations and European civilisations at the SIRICE Institute. Her most recent publication with Pierre Vermeren is 'Dissidents du Maghreb' (Belin, 2018).

This article is republished here with permission from our partners at Orient XXI.

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.