Repositioning in Rabat, Joy in Jerusalem

Morocco and Israel Agree on Rapprochement
© Shutterstock - REDMASON - Flag of Israel and Morocco on brick wall

Big news in the Middle East and North Africa. U.S. President Donald Trump announced yesterday that Morocco and Israel will establish diplomatic relations. In return, the U.S. will recognize Morocco's claims over the Western Sahara. Our heads of office in Rabat and Jerusalem analyse what the events mean - for the two countries and the balance of power in the region.

The U.S. president's Twitter message spread like wildfire in Morocco and Israel yesterday: "Our two great friends Israel and the Kingdom of Morocco have agreed to full diplomatic relations." At the same time, Trump announced that the U.S. would recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, adding that Morocco had been the first state to recognize the U.S. in 1777.

Risky castling in Rabat

On the Moroccan side, the royal cabinet immediately followed up with an announcement in which every effort was made to sell the diplomatic successes as independent of each other and not as bartering. The normalization of relations with Israel, it said, was above all an expression of the close historical ties between Morocco and the Jews.

Indeed, Jewish culture is strongly embedded in Morocco and is still visible and widely appreciated today. One of King Mohammed VI's closest advisors, André Azoulay, is Jewish; a unique pairing for an Arab country. Morocco also maintains close economic ties with Israel, even in the sensitive field of armaments. In January of this year, the kingdom announced the purchase of Israeli reconnaissance drones.

But Rabat has so far refrained from diplomatic relations with Israel, probably for good reason. The king and his advisers are probably aware that parts of the Moroccan population will see recognition of Israel as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause and a breach of solidarity between the Arab peoples. The youth organization of a center-left party lamented, "Morocco has given its opponents a huge gift." The royal family therefore hastened to clarify in its communiqué that the decision "in no way alters Morocco's constant and continuing support for the Palestinian cause."

Clearly, the Moroccan government views the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel primarily as a price to pay in order to pursue its primary foreign policy goal: the recognition of Western Sahara as Moroccan territory by as many and as influential states as possible. The recognition of the United States is in this regard the Holy Grail.

With Jo Biden's election victory and Donald Trump's term soon to end, it was clear that such a deal could only come about now. It seems unlikely that a future President Biden would have recognized Moroccan claims in Sahara in contradiction to current United Nations resolutions. In this respect, the Moroccan king has cleverly exploited the window of opportunity to his advantage. 

Rabat's calculation seems to be working so far. Many Moroccans are celebrating their government's move on social media. Despite a few critical voices, there has not yet been a major outcry. It remains to be seen how the Frente Polisario will react. Faced with dwindling political and diplomatic options, the liberation movement in Western Sahara may be tempted to resort to military means once again.

So while Morocco may see itself as a winner primarily because of U.S. recognition of its territorial claims, Jerusalem is rejoicing for entirely different reasons.

Joy in Jerusalem

For Israel, normalization of relations with Morocco is of a different quality than the establishment of diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed in the Abraham Accords and the still uncertain process of rapprochement with Sudan.

If Morocco, a major, central Arab player, now also recognizes Israel, this will have a major political-psychological impact in the region. The Gulf states are interesting economic partners for Israel, but Morocco is a special link in the Sunni Arab world and within its newly emerging alliance against Iran, which is supported by the United States and Israel.

Between Morocco and Israel, 'warmer' relations are conceivable than those that Israel has with Egypt and Jordan. Normalization with Morocco, unlike that with other states, has a strong sentimental element in Israeli: Morocco's Jewish-influenced culture and the hundreds of thousands of Israelis of Moroccan descent (Netanyahu calls them a 'living bridge' between the states) will spur tourism and encounters and create many new relationships, including economic ones.

By recognizing Israel, Morocco's front of anti-normalization and boycott of Israel finally collapses. Even if the Moroccan king explicitly adheres to the two-state solution and the right of Palestinian Muslims to pray in Jerusalem without hindrance, the Palestinians have lost the political bargaining chip that Arab recognition of Israel depends on the establishment of a Palestinian state. By not overcoming their absurd internal division and political incompetence, the Palestinians are losing more of the historic Palestinian land every day. Whereby all the normalization of Israel with the Arab states does not bring a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.

Politico-psychologically important in terms of Israeli-Arab reconciliation, this agreement is important insofar as it erodes the conviction anchored in Israel's population that "the (all) Arabs are our enemies."

The Palestinians should not hope for a kind of 'Arabization' of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; after all, Israel's new partners will not be able or willing to exert any real pressure on this issue. The de facto, functional annexation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank is progressing daily with new settlement construction and the expansion of infrastructure for access to Jewish settlements.

For Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is in dire straits, the agreement with Morocco represents a domestic political success important to his political survival and another stroke of genius. To his indictment, the failure of his governing coalition, probable new elections in March 2021, is added these days that former companions challenge him within the right-wing nationalist camp. Once again, he is confronting them with a statesmanlike pose and grandeur.

It remains to be seen how the balance of power in the Middle East and North Africa will develop under a new U.S. president. However, the facts that were now created cannot be reversed and will have a decisive impact on the future of the region.

About the authors

Sebastian Vagt
Sebastian Vagt is the Project Director of Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Morocco and Algeria. Sebastian holds a diploma in State and Social Sciences from Munich and Stellenbosch, South Africa. In his previous role at the Foundation, he served as a Defence Analyst in our Brussels office.
Ulrich Wacker
Ulrich Wacker joined the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in 1981. He has served as project leader in Jerusalem from 1991-1999. Until 2016 he served in Potsdam, Mexico City and Amman. Since January 2017 he is again project leader for the Palestinian Territories and Israel in Jerusalem.