Morocco move is a product of unique circumstances

Morocco has seized the last moments of the Trump administration to strike a deal over Israel recognition, writes Anshel Pfeffer


The announcement by Donald Trump - on Twitter, where else - that Israel and Morocco are to “normalise” and establish diplomatic relations was surprising in its timing. Few had expected another diplomatic breakthrough this late in Mr Trump’s lame-duck term. But it was also rather familiar. This is after all, the fourth Arab state, following the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, to reach such an agreement with Israel in the space of just five months and we’ve almost got used to it.

And just as with the previous three, the same kind of questions arise. How did the Trump administration achieve it? What did the Arab country “get” in return? How is its government going to pay lip-service to the Palestinians despite abandoning their cause?

Unlike with the UAE, where the massive arms deals with the US became apparent only gradually, Morocco’s quid pro quo was out there from the very start. The Trump administration promised to recognise Morocco’s disputed claim to Western Sahara, despite the prevailing international consensus that the Polisario Front represents the Sahrawis who have a right to self-determination. Fighting resumed only last month in Western Sahara after decades of calm and the Moroccan government must have realised that this was a unique opportunity to gain American recognition before a more diplomatically orthodox administration is back in Washington.

Morocco was always seen as a candidate for establishing ties with Israel. The two countries had low-level diplomatic relations between 1993 and 2002, when they were cut off due to the Second Intifada. Even in their absence, tens of thousands of Israelis have been openly visiting Morocco each year where they are usually greeted warmly - especially since many of them are from the large Moroccan-Israeli community.

It isn’t clear at this point if there is a schedule for the actual resumption of relations and whether this time they will include embassies but there is already a promise of direct flights from Tel Aviv to Casablanca in the near future and, for most Israelis, that is all that matters.

Unlike the previous breakthroughs with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan, this one is taking place after Mr Trump lost his fight for re-election and before Joe Biden takes up residence in the White House. So what happens if the new administration reverses course and “derecognises” Morocco’s claim to West Sahara? Would Morocco also abandon normalisation with Israel in such a case? Or would they reckon that it was still worthwhile to enhance a relationship that already exists? 

And now that it is impossible to ignore the success of the “inside-out” diplomatic engagement of the Trump team which has yielded four agreements despite bypassing the Israel-Palestine conflict, will the Biden administration continue on this track, encouraging further agreements with pro-western Arab regimes? Or will they return to the old, and by now rather discredited, diplomatic approach that “true” peace between Israel and the Arab world can only be achieved by first reaching a solution with the Palestinians?

King Mohammed VI personally called Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to ensure him that Morocco still stood firmly behind the Palestinians and their national aspirations. So did the leaders of the UAE and Bahrain earlier this year and it was cold comfort to the Palestinians. The reality is that by now a quarter of the membership of the Arab League is openly dealing with Israel, despite the diplomatic process with the Palestinians having been frozen for six years and with the current Israeli government further than ever from making any concessions. Mr Abbas had hoped that following the Biden victory he would not be getting any more similar phone-calls from Arab leaders. But until Inauguration on 20 January, anything can still happen.

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