Zaid M. Belbagi
In a seismic announcement this week, Israel recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. This long-awaited development was a requirement for Morocco’s agreeing to join the 2020 Abraham Accords, the normalization agreements between Israel and a number of Arab states.
Though the recognition was not immediately forthcoming, its arrival this week follows a similar announcement by the US, and recent support from Spain and Germany for Morocco’s autonomy plan.
A vast territory covering more than 250,000 sq. km, the Western Sahara, otherwise known as Morocco’s Southern Provinces, accounts for almost 40 percent of Moroccan territory.
Soon to be home to the largest port in the country — and if Morocco’s bid to host the 2030 World Cup is successful, the location of the opening match of the tournament — the territory is very much sharing in the development that is taking place in the rest of the country.
Where a low-scale conflict once persisted for decades, the Rabat region is now attracting three times the level of investment in areas in the north of the country. These economic realities reflect its growing role as a regional hub that is unmistakably Moroccan.
Moroccan control over the territory has long been politically contentious, in Rabat and in other regional capitals. Often described as an unresolved post-colonial open wound, the reality is that it is impossible for Morocco, which lost a third of its historical Eastern territory with the 20th century French creation of Algeria and Mauritania, to relinquish the area.
Long supported by Algeria, the Sahrawi cause of the rebel Polisario group took on a Cold War character, as much like today, Algiers endeared itself to Moscow.
In the modern context, Morocco’s rapid development has become a bone of contention to resource-rich, but economically stagnant, Algeria, where a military-led government has sought an extension of the conflict to placate a restive young population that is two generations removed from the veteran freedom fighters still in power.
It is against this backdrop that the Israeli and US recognition has come about. Though there are of course Israelis of Sahrawi origin, this week’s announcement is less a declaration about the Abraham Accords than a ratification of the de facto reality on the ground.
Israel joins the likes of Bahrain, the UAE and Jordan as one of many countries that have formally recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the territory, echoing the 1975 opinion of the International Court of Justice that “ties of allegiance” between Sultans of Morocco and the tribes of the region “have existed since antiquity.”
As Dakhla and Laayoune become international destinations and the phosphates of the region provide critical supplies of fertilizer amid the global commodities crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, effective governing of the region by Morocco has supplanted conflict with development.
Today, the estimated 20,000-60,000 Sahrawis languishing in camps on the Algerian border, who are nominally part of the Polisario movement, represent less than 10 percent of the wider population of the territory who are Moroccan citizens of Sahrawi origin.
Morocco’s agreement with Israel is itself also a formalization of day-to-day realities. Given that 20 percent of Israelis are of Moroccan origin, the normalization of relations was much needed, less as an expression of the realpolitik and more to meet the consular requirements of families who travel between the two countries and consider themselves dual citizens.
So established is the Moroccan Jewish community within Israel that Col. Sharon Itach, Israel’s first-ever military attache to Morocco, who arrived in Rabat this week, was born to Moroccan parents. So was Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, who recently visited Rabat.
As much as the position taken by Israel on the Sahara is “clear-cut” — and comes amid broader momentum in Morocco’s favor after Washington and Madrid, and other European capitals, supported its autonomy plan — Morocco has nevertheless been prescriptive in its continued support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue. An effective broker between both sides of the conflict for decades, Morocco recently condemned Israeli military action in Jenin amid the wider international outrage.
In addition, the country’s chairmanship of the Al-Quds Committee, which is responsible for the protection of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the cultural heritage of Jerusalem, remains a key pillar of its foreign policy. With 87 percent of the intergovernmental organization’s funding coming from Moroccan taxpayers, the cause remains a politically sensitive rallying point in Morocco and is unlikely to be affected by the normalization agreement.
Broadly speaking, the Abraham Accords represent a diplomatic coup of sorts for Israel. With animosity against Iran on the wane, they provide another conduit for diplomatic outreach. Decades after the establishment of Israel, recognition from its Arab neighbors, who long refused to acknowledge its existence at all, has been a foreign policy priority. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the accords have been such an important focus for Tel Aviv.
In hindsight, however, they were signed without significant progress, or commitment, on the Israeli side to improving the situation of the Palestinian people. In pacing its engagement with Israel, Morocco avoided a similar fate by achieving a major diplomatic goal prior to offering Israel what it sought most.
This should be at the forefront of the considerations among Israeli decision-makers as they seek to ingratiate themselves with other Arab countries, which are unlikely to follow suit on normalization without any significant movement on the big issues in the region.