The Israel-Morocco peace deal Donald Trump has brokered is risky

ISRAEL’S FORMAL ties with the Arab world now extend from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the east to Morocco in the west. On December 10th President Donald Trump announced, via Twitter of course, the latest breakthrough in his diplomatic push on behalf of the Jewish state. Morocco, the Arab world’s oldest monarchy, whose king goes by the Muslim honorific “Commander of the Faithful”, will become the fourth Arab state in as many months to establish diplomatic relations with Israel (following the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan).

The agreement is a breakthrough for Israel, and also for Morocco. As part of the deal, Mr Trump—in keeping with his transactional approach to diplomacy—recognised Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara. The territory, which is slightly larger than Britain, is also claimed by the Polisario Front, a nationalist movement backed by Algeria that has pursued independence for more than 40 years. Mr Trump’s intervention comes amid provocations by both sides and risks restarting a war that ended three decades ago.

That old conflict kicked off in 1975, when Morocco annexed Western Sahara after Spain, the colonial power, pulled out. Polisario, which the UN considers the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people, resisted—but they were outnumbered and outgunned. With Morocco in control of about two-thirds of the territory, and Polisario controlling the other third, the UN brokered a ceasefire deal in 1991 that promised the Sahrawis a referendum on independence. Morocco, though, has obstructed the process. The vote has yet to take place.

Morocco’s treatment of the Sahrawis is not unlike Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, who have been left out of the recent diplomacy. Over the years Morocco has used subsidies and tax breaks to convince thousands of its people to move to Western Sahara in an effort to normalise its control (and sway a referendum, were one to take place). Sahrawi protests are suppressed; activists talk of torture by the security services. But the kingdom has also spent billions of dollars fixing up the territory, spending on things such as schools and clinics.

Once of primarily symbolic value, as a reminder of Morocco’s lost empire, Western Sahara’s strategic value has been growing. The Polisario side of the territory is mostly inhospitable and provides little in the way of resources. But the portion controlled by Morocco is rich in phosphates. Its waters are full of fish. And large reserves of oil may lie offshore. The kingdom also sees Western Sahara as its gateway to west Africa, which buys up Moroccan exports. Morocco is the biggest African investor in the region.

So the kingdom is working hard to transform its de facto control of Western Sahara into something more legitimate. Over the past year it has convinced around 20 African and Arab countries to recognise its claim and open consulates in the territory. Recognition by America, a member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), is an even bigger coup. The UN seems to have all but given up on overseeing the referendum. A UNSC resolution in October extending the mandate of the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara did not mention the vote (though it is called the “UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara”).


Mr Trump has endorsed Morocco’s preferred solution of autonomy for the territory. “Morocco’s serious, credible and realistic autonomy proposal is the ONLY basis for a just and lasting solution for enduring peace and prosperity!” he tweeted. “Morocco recognized the United States in 1777. It is thus fitting we recognize their sovereignty over the Western Sahara.” Indeed, both acts neglected the opinion of the indigenous population. Joe Biden, who will replace Mr Trump in January, could adopt a more even-handed approach to Western Sahara.

Inside Morocco, the king’s decision to normalise relations with Israel remains controversial. Many Islamists and leftists oppose the move, albeit quietly. Adl wal Ihsan, an opposition Islamist group, issued a condemnatory statement. But most Moroccans seem to consider America’s recognition of the kingdom’s claim over Western Sahara more important than the kingdom’s recognition of Israel. They have long called for putting their needs before those of the Palestinians. A popular slogan, “Taza before Gaza”, refers to cities in Morocco and Palestine.

The Sahrawis pose a bigger risk. They have tired of talks that lead nowhere. In October Sahrawi protesters closed the UN-patrolled border crossing at Guerguerat, which connects the Morocco-controlled side of Western Sahara to Mauritania. The area is meant to act as a buffer zone, but Morocco sent in troops to quell the unrest. That enraged Brahim Ghali, the leader of Polisario (pictured), who prefers armed struggle to negotiations. In November he abandoned the ceasefire and claimed a series of attacks around the 2,700km (1,700 mile) sand barrier, built and fortified by the Moroccan army, that separates the two sides.

Whether things escalate further depends, in part, on Algeria. It competes with Morocco for access to west African markets and may see a benefit in the trouble around Guerguerat. But Mr Trump’s deal has some in Algeria worried. American and Israeli support, warn Algerian generals, could embolden Morocco at a time when Algeria is economically weak and politically unstable (its president is convalescing abroad). Algeria’s prime minister, Abdelaziz Djerad, warns of a “real threat on our borders, reached by the Zionist entity”.

Some of this may be an effort by Algerian leaders to divert attention from problems at home. But they have the backing of Russia, which criticised Mr Trump for acting unilaterally on Western Sahara. The manoeuvring of local players and foreign powers is pushing the situation to the brink of war. Whether or not the president’s deal lowers tensions in the Holy Land, it is raising them in Western Sahara.

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