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Israel is pushing for the U.S. to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara territory in exchange for the normalisation of Moroccan-Israeli relations. The proposed trilateral agreement has been under consideration since at least September 2018, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly met with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita in New York while attending the UN General Assembly. Renewed efforts to reach an accord come ahead of next month’s general election, the third time Israelis will go to the polls in less than twelve months. Netanyahu also attempted to finalise a deal before elections in April and September, and then during failed negotiations to form a coalition government in Israel in December.
Should Israel succeed in its pressure campaign, the Trump administration would be breaking from a policy of neutrality that was established under Bill Clinton and followed by his successors. The United States’ existing approach calls for a negotiated settlement that would see Western Sahara granted autonomous status within Morocco. That position, however, may be traded away in favour of advancing President Trump’s aim of reducing opposition to Israel among Arab states. Interested parties with ties to the White House have also been working to encourage a policy shift in Washington. Axios reports that the case for change has been made by food tycoon Yariv Elbaz, a Moroccan Jew who is a “close associate” of President Trump’s son in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. Elbaz helped arrange the back channel that led to the Netanyahu-Bourita meeting, and welcomed a White House delegation including Kushner to Casablanca last year.
A U.S. policy shift leading to Moroccan recognition of Israel would mark yet another example of diplomatic backscratching between the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government. Ahead of elections last April, the U.S. recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a significant boost for Netanyahu’s political prospects. In November, Morocco was one of four Arab states represented at a clandestine Washington meeting where Victoria Coates, Trump’s deputy national security adviser, floated the idea of signing “non-belligerence pacts” with Israel, a first step towards formal diplomatic recognition. Moreover, President Trump’s Middle East peace plan, which was released last month, made significant concessions to Israel. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, along with other Palestinian leaders, was not consulted in the development of the proposal, and denounced it as “a plan to protect Trump from impeachment and protect Netanyahu from prison.”
Much like the Arab-Israeli conflict, the situation in Western Sahara is an intractable one. The territory, previously a Spanish colony until 1975, is now claimed by Morocco despite fierce – and, for a time, violent – resistance from the indigenous Sahrawi population. Since a 1991 ceasefire the Polisario Front, the main rebel movement in the region, has shifted its tactics from military to civilian resistance. Nevertheless, clashes are still common, and more than 100,000 Sahrawis live in refugee camps on the other side of the border with Algeria. For the half a million people who continue to live in Western Sahara, unlawful arrests, harassment by government officials and other human rights abuses remain a reality.
U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty will not fundamentally alter the situation in the sparsely populated desert region. Russia, the U.K., Spain and most African states continue to support self-determination for the Sahrawi people, and a change in American policy – particularly under President Trump, who is viewed with scepticism even by many U.S. allies – is unlikely to lead to a domino effect of international recognition. Nevertheless, American backing will strengthen the Moroccan position and make meaningful negotiations for a peaceful settlement an ever more remote possibility. Similarly, Israel winning the support of another Arab state would further undermine the authority of Palestinian leaders, who have already been badly sidelined in the latest peace process. While the mooted trilateral agreement would certainly be in the interest of Trump and Netanyahu – not to mention the Moroccan government – whether it would make either the Sahrawis or the Palestinians safer remains in doubt.