Israel has scrambled to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara after suggestions that Rabat was considering reversing its normalisation of ties with Tel Aviv. Morocco has repeatedly postponed hosting the Negev Forum (a meeting of Arab foreign ministers with their Israeli and US counterparts), which has been seen as a sign of Rabat’s growing disillusionment with the normalisation process and its failure to achieve its primary aim.
Morocco made no secret of the reason it normalised ties with Israel in the first place. US President Donald Trump had promised to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty and resolve the issue in Rabat’s favour in exchange for normalisation of ties.
However, Donald Trump failed to secure a second term in which he might have been able to make good on the promise beyond his statement of official recognition of Moroccan sovereignty. Although his successor Joe Biden did not reverse the official recognition, he has refrained from taking any action in favour of Morocco on the issue of Western Sahara that might indicate a real de facto change in the US position.
Morocco has sought to win over Biden by pro-actively enhancing ties with Israel. Israeli forces have participated in regional military exercises hosted by Morocco, and which have included other Arab states such as Tunisia. Bilateral defence and energy agreements have been signed, and Israel’s Yair Lapid was publicly hosted in his capacity as foreign minister on Moroccan territory despite public backlash.
To Rabat’s fury however, Biden instead has chased Algeria and sought to pacify the Algerian authorities who were livid at Trump’s decision to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty. Under Biden, there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity with Algeria to convince the Algerian authorities that the US will not act on the Western Sahara in a manner that will upset them. Algerian foreign minister recently stated that Algiers was “satisfied” with Biden’s policy on Western Sahara.
Biden’s pursuit of Algeria is the clearest indication to Morocco that US policy is designed to try and appease Rabat with official recognition, while appeasing Algeria by not taking any action that actually reflects official recognition. Moreover, Israeli policymakers have annoyed Rabat by suggesting that any traction or support on recognition is dependent on Morocco hosting the controversial (and unpopular) Negev summit first.
“To Rabat’s fury however, Biden instead has chased Algeria and sought to pacify the Algerian authorities who were livid at Trump’s decision to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty”
From Rabat’s perspective, the sole purpose of normalisation of ties with Israel was to secure priority status in the Congress and the White House in order to push through a favourable resolution on Western Sahara, which Morocco insists is Moroccan territory. As the former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jassem told France 24 in 2018, “when the Arabs talk to the Israelis, it is not because they like the Israelis. Instead, it is because they think Israel is the key to opening Congress and the White House”.
The failure in securing any real traction has meant that a debate is taking place among Moroccan policymakers as to whether normalisation of ties with Israel is worth it, and whether Morocco should consider the option of reversing its ties as it did in 2000 when it shut down the Israeli liaison office in Rabat at the outbreak of the Second Intifada. The promise on which Morocco agreed to normalise ties has not been fulfilled. Moreover, Israel has not shown itself to be particularly inclined to deploy its weight in Washington to push Biden to take any tangible action on the Western Sahara.
This is the reason why Tel Aviv has scrambled to recognise Moroccan sovereignty to appease Rabat. Israel’s recognition is a bid by Tel Aviv to temper Morocco’s disillusionment with the normalisation process while it considers how to address Washington’s disinclination towards taking any real action in Morocco’s favour.
From Israel’s perspective, any reversal of normalisation of ties with any of the Arab states threatens to start a domino effect that could see all the Arab states reverse normalisation. Sudan’s Abdel-Fattah Burhan normalised with Israel solely on the basis that it would convince Washington to let him stay in power. With a civil war now underway in which Washington and UAE are seen to be sympathetic to his rival Hemedti who seeks to topple him, Burhan would need no encouragement to reverse normalisation. Bahrain normalised ties under pressure from UAE and Saudi Arabia, and was considered a ‘soft’ normalisation by the latter which has been flirting with the idea for some time. Both Bahrain and the UAE are disinclined to the idea of being the only Arab states with official ties with Israel in a region where the vast majority of the people are adamantly against it.
Although Morocco has publicly celebrated Israel’s recognition of the Western Sahara, it is now pressuring Tel Aviv to go beyond and set up a consulate in the Western Sahara. One of the points of contention that Rabat has with Washington is Biden’s refusal to set up a US consulate in the Western Sahara to demonstrate his commitment to Trump’s promise. Morocco believes that if Israel can be convinced to set up in Western Sahara, then the US will follow suit.
Whether Tel Aviv will do so however remains to be seen. Nevertheless, Israel’s scramble reflects its perception of how fragile the normalisation processes are, and an acute awareness that normalisation of ties remains dependent on US fulfilling its promises rather than genuine ideological commitment on the part of the Arab regimes.
Sami Hamdi is the Managing Director of the International Interest, a global risk and intelligence company. He advises governments on the geopolitical dynamics of Europe and the MENA region, and has significant expertise in advising companies on commercial issues related to volatile political environments and their implications on market entry, market expansion, and managing of stakeholders. Sami is also featured as a commentator for Aljazeera (Arabic and English), Sky News, BBC, TRT World, and other outlets.