In a final act by his administration, President Donald Trump announced that Morocco and Israel will normalize relations, making the kingdom the fourth Arab country to establish diplomatic ties with Israel as part of the administration’s so-called “Abraham Accords.” In exchange, the United States would recognize Morocco’s sovereignty claims over the Western Sahara and establish a US consulate in the area, the perennial pressure point of Morocco’s foreign policy.
The Western Sahara has been the subject of controversy, international litigation, and bellicosity since 1975 when Spanish colonial forces left the territory. The area was thereafter divided into two spheres of influence, with one part controlled by Morocco and the other by Mauritania. Immediately after Spanish decolonization, a rebel Sahrawi group in the camps of Tindouf in Algeria, the POLISARIO Front (Spanish acronym for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro), declared the territory's independence and unilaterally proclaimed the establishment of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. After Mauritania's withdrawal from the territory and rescission of sovereignty in 1979, Morocco quickly assumed control over the southern part of the Western Sahara. A decade of violence ensued, lasting most of the 1980s, between the POLISARIO and Morocco. The conflict ended in 1991 with a United Nations-brokered cease-fire and a planned referendum for self-determination that has yet to be conducted.
Old Moroccan-Israeli Relations
The recent agreement between Israel and Morocco was the culmination of months-long negotiations brokered by President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner. Immediately after President Trump announced the deal, the White House published the full text of the president’s proclamation of US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty claims over the Western Sahara and affirmation of the American government’s belief that autonomy under said sovereignty is the only viable option moving forward. With the proclamation also came news that the United States and Morocco are concluding a military deal for highly sophisticated drones.
Morocco has until now been hesitant about open normalization with Israel. Indeed, Morocco and Israel have had long standing economic, military, intelligence, and cultural ties dating back to the 1960s. After the 1990s Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel and Morocco even established diplomatic missions in Tel Aviv and Rabat which lasted until the 2000 Palestinian intifada when Morocco suspended diplomatic ties. However, the rupture did not deter military and economic relations. Last February, Morocco received three Israeli reconnaissance drones as part of a $48 million arms deal. Trade has also blossomed in the past few years between the two countries despite the lack of official diplomatic relations. Between 2014 and 2017, Morocco-Israeli trade topped $149 million. Lastly, droves of Israeli Moroccan Jews make annual trips back to Morocco for family visits and religious celebrations such as Mimouna. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis have ancestral ties to Morocco and have played a major role in maintaining solid relations between Israel and Morocco.
Morocco and Israel relations did not need an official proclamation, but the recent skirmishes in the southern Guerguerat crossing point between the Western Sahara and Mauritania may have precipitated Morocco to finally strike a pragmatic bargain with Israel and the United States. Last month, Morocco launched military operations in that border area in order to repel what Morocco alleged is a POLISARIO Front attempt to block the crossing point. The military actions were the first ever since the negotiated 1991 cease fire agreement. The current domestic political instability in Algeria also provided a momentous opportunity for Morocco to move ahead with the US-brokered deal. In the aftermath of the Moroccan military operations around Guerguerat, state media revived popular patriotic and nationalist feelings toward the Western Sahara. This preceded an even bigger decision by the regime to normalize relations with Israel since Morocco’s enduring Western Sahara cause trumps any sympathies for the plight of the Palestinian people. This is plainly manifested in the Moroccan media coverage, which has lauded the US proclamation as a major and historical victory for Moroccan diplomacy without mentioning the quid pro quo that sees Morocco normalizing relations with Israel.
An Unmissed Opportunity
Morocco knows full well that with Trump’s time in the White House nearing its end, this may be the last and best chance to get a crucial American recognition of Moroccan assertions over the Western Sahara. The Biden Administration would not be so inclined to make such a transactional deal; still, it may well abide by the “Abraham Accords.” The Obama Administration had proposed the expansion of the UN mission in the Western Sahara to include human rights monitoring in the region and the POLISARIO-controlled Tindouf camps in Algeria. That was a major blow to Morocco as it signaled a pivotal shift in the American position away from the autonomy the kingdom had advocated toward human rights violations, a festering sore for Morocco’s government, but also an issue in the camps in Tindouf.
Nonetheless, the Biden Administration will be even less inclined to reverse course on the Trump proclamation since it is part of a tripartite deal involving Israel which is an important domestic political issue with tremendous electoral ramifications for both Democrats and Republicans. The Biden Administration, however, could still push Morocco on issues of human rights and for a governance plan along Morocco’s autonomy plan put forth in 2007, whereby Morocco would retain sovereignty over a semi-autonomous Western Sahara. But even in the absence of acknowledgement from the United Nations and European allies of the Trump announcement, US recognition is a major diplomatic breakthrough for Morocco and a boon for its policy toward the dispute short of a referendum on self-determination.
The Issue of Identity
The impetus for a referendum has somewhat diminished largely because of Morocco’s autonomy plan of 2007, which would make the Western Sahara a semi-autonomous region under Moroccan sovereignty. But the referendum in the Western Sahara has been beset by two issues: the difficulty in determining voter eligibility, and Morocco’s historical ties to the region. The conflict's resolution has depended on identifying who qualifies as Sahrawi and is thereby eligible to vote. Modern conceptions of self-determination lack the basic parameters for defining a "people" entitled to self-determination or autonomy. As with most conflicts, the dizzying number of UN resolutions on the Western Sahara conflict fail to demarcate the contours of identity, while clearly positing self-determination as a sine qua non to self-governance. This approach to the Western Sahara also reflects the United Nations’ lack of historical knowledge about the territory. Such knowledge could have enriched its understanding of the complex identity issues at stake for all parties to the conflict.
Historically, the Western Sahara was not demarcated, and many local tribes paid allegiance to different powers. Sahrawi tribes, which had their own internal governance structure, led an autonomous life and paid allegiance to the central authority of the Makhzen, or monarchy, in Morocco. This power-sharing structure is similar to what Morocco is proposing in the Western Sahara today; under the 2007 autonomy plan, the Sahrawis would self-govern under Morocco’s overarching political authority.
No US administration has gone this far in this long-standing conflict in the Western Sahara. Morocco would acclaim this as a huge diplomatic achievement and is a mere consolidation of extant relations with Israel. While Moroccan King Mohammed VI has hailed the US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty in the Western Sahara, he still restated to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas his country’s commitment to a just and equitable peace and to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Domestically, Moroccans have long been as adamant about Morocco’s rights in the Western Sahara as they are against normalization with Israel. According to the 2019-2020 Arab Opinion Index, 88% of Moroccans oppose recognition of Israel by their government. However, the Western Sahara cause may just be a bit more quintessential to Moroccan identity that even the political movements with strong support of the Palestinian cause would have no recourse and viable political strategy than to toe the line in the sand firmly drawn by the regime.
The Western Sahara conflict will remain a contentious issue in the Maghreb region because of the absence of strong international pressure, Morocco’s intransigence regarding its historical ties to the region, and Algeria’s rejectionist posture. Arguments about Moroccan control of the territory, while valid from the point of view of international law, do not take into consideration the intricate issues of identity, sovereignty, and history that define the conflict.
*This article appeared first on the Arab Center's Viewpoints page.