James Moran / Dec 2020
This US-brokered deal, which follows three others involving Israeli relations with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan, has put another cat among the many pigeons fluttering around the EU’s volatile southern neighbourhood.
In essence, it involves a partial normalisation of relations between Rabat and Jerusalem, though Morocco has not committed to setting up an Embassy in Israel, only the (re)opening of a liaison office, which has been closed since 2002, together with opening direct flights - there is a very large community of Jews of Moroccan origin in Israel - and technical cooperation.
In return, the outgoing Trump administration has recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara and notified the US congress of a potential billion-dollar arms sale to Rabat.
The deal has been welcomed by a number of Arab and European countries, notably France and Spain, though the EU itself has not officially made its view known. There have also been strong condemnations by the Polisario Front, which controls about 20% of Western Sahara and is based in the Tindouf refugee camps in South Algeria; Algeria, which supports them; and some Palestinian groups, notably Hamas, although the PLO administration in the West Bank has stayed mute.
King Mohammed called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shortly after the deal was announced to tell him that it would have no effect on Morocco’s support for Palestinian rights and statehood, and at least for now, this royal reassurance seems to have had an effect.
It remains to be seen whether the most significant aspect of all this, the change in the US position on Western Sahara, will survive the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, although the incoming Biden team has hitherto had a fairly benign view of the other normalisations handmaidened by Trump over the past few months, saying that they are generally good for peace in the region, and it seems unlikely that they would want to negate this one.
Another uncertainty looking ahead is Moroccan domestic opinion. While there are few reliable surveys to hand, the US move on sovereignty has been popular in the media, and most likely with the public at large. However, judging from recent trends on social media, that is to an extent offset by a large body of pro-Palestinian opinion that sees the deal as a betrayal of their cause.
But many will have been mollified by Abbas’s passivity and the King’s reassurances to him. Anti-US sentiments may also abate if Biden reengages on a credible middle east peace track.
In the wider Arab world, the main problem will be relations with Algeria, which could give some cause for concern, though beyond rhetoric, spoiler actions by Algiers seem unlikely. Economic ties are limited, and there are important common initiatives in play, such as their joint bid with Morocco and Tunisia to host the 2030 football world cup. Moreover, Algeria is currently preoccupied with its own domestic challenges.
The question now is what is likely to happen next on the ground in the Western Sahara. There had already been indications of trouble there in recent weeks around Guergeurat, a town in the buffer zone near the southern border with Mauritania, which had been blockaded by Polisario, stranding Moroccan trucks there.
Citing the UN stipulation that regular civil and commercial traffic must not be hampered, the Moroccan army was mobilised and the border has reopened with minimal force but this was the first sign in a long time that the 1991 ceasefire could be under threat. A new injection of diplomacy is needed to shore up the peace process in a region that badly needs stability and development.
The EU agreement with Morocco already grants preferential trading arrangements to the 80% of Western Sahara under the control of Rabat, and if a path to lasting peace can be found these could, together with further aid, be expanded to cover the entire territory.
The 2007 Moroccan plan for the future of Western Sahara foresees a high degree of autonomy for the Sahrawi people and a role for Polisario under Moroccan sovereignty, but excludes the latter’s key demand, a referendum on independence. It has gained some traction at the UN in recent years, garnering support from a number of countries in addition to the US, notably France.
In its current form, it will be difficult to revive the plan as a basis for a permanent settlement, given the strong opposition of Polisario and Algeria and the lack of overt support from the EU, even if some of its member states are sympathetic to it. However, it may be possible to make some improvements to the plan, such as enhanced economic incentives for the Sahrawi’s, that would give some space for a new round of negotiations.
That is of course much easier said than done, but it was ever thus in international diplomacy. That said Rabat has a strong interest in maintaining diplomatic momentum after the latest US move, and all parties involved, including the EU, would do well to give this serious consideration in the run-up to Biden’s inauguration next month.