Morocco has a rich history of peaceful co-existence between its Jewish and Muslim populations. Rooted in its Sufi culture that promotes tolerance and compassion, the cultural links have now manifested into establishment of ties with Israel facilitated by the United States of America (the US). The normalization of ties between Israel and Morocco, both strategically located, and with a long history of cooperation has ushered in a new road map of inter-continental economic cooperation. In the context of the Middle East Peace Process, Israel stands to strategically benefit both in political and security terms through the normalization of ties with an increasing number of Arab countries. Simultaneously, Morocco now has greater political heft through the nurturing of its Jewish heritage but also appears to be on the path of consolidating its claim over the issue of the disputed territory of Western Sahara. This issue has undergone a paradigm shift through the recognition of Morocco’s claim over it, by the US and through its economic activities in region including opening of its consulate and those by other countries.
This paper examines some of the political, economic and cultural factors that has led to a paradigm change resulting in the establishment of political relations between Morocco and Israel and the US’s pivotal role in it.
On December 10, 2020, President Trump announced that the Kingdom of Morocco and Israel had agreed to establish full diplomatic relations.[i]
On the same day, King Mohammed VI of Morocco phoned Mahmoud Abbas, President of Palestine, reassuring him that “Rabat stands by a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and that “negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are the only way to reach a final, lasting and comprehensive solution to the conflict”.[ii]
1. President Trump’s announcement was formalized on December 20, 2020, when Morocco, Israel and the US signed a Joint Declaration to establish diplomatic relations between Rabat and Tel Aviv (the Moroccan Government prefers to use the phrase “Resumption of Diplomatic Relations”).[iii] Notably, Morocco’s close ties with Saudi Arabia were instrumental in the latter providing tacit support to the Declaration, at a time when the peace process between Israel and Palestine appears to be at a standstill.[iv]
2. The Joint Declaration also reflected Morocco’s position recalling the need to preserve the special status of the sacred city of Jerusalem for the three monotheistic religions in King Mohammed VI’s capacity as Chairman of the Al Quds Committee, the premier Standing Committee of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) established in 1975 by his father, King Hassan II. The Committee follows up on the resolutions related to the Arab-Israeli conflict.[v]
3. The Declaration, negotiated by Jared Kushner, President Trump’s Senior Adviser and son-in-law and Avi Berkowitz, President Trump’s Middle-East Envoy was signed by Jared Kushner, Meir Ben Shabbat, Israel’s National Security Adviser, AlonUshpiz, Israel’s Director-General of Foreign Affairs and SaadEddine El Othmani, Morocco’s Head of Government in the presence of King Mohammed VI in Rabat. In the Declaration, Morocco and Israel have agreed to cooperate in trade, investment, technology, civil aviation, visa and consular services, tourism, water, agriculture, food security, development, energy and other related areas. The Moroccan Government committed to facilitate direct flights between Morocco and Israel and reopen the Liaison Offices that had been closed in 2002. [vi]
4. Four more Agreements between Morocco and Israel and two between Morocco and the US were signed to formalize the pledges in the Joint Declaration, including the Morocco-Israel visa-free agreement for diplomats, bilateral agreements in civil aviation, water resources and trade& investment. The US-Morocco Agreements included an MOU between Morocco and the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and a Letter of Intent expressing Morocco’s support for DFC’s “Prosper Africa” initiative to promote US investment in Africa.
5. Since the signing of the Declaration, the normalization of Morocco- Israel relations has gained momentum. In March 2021, Morocco joined UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in attending Israel’s commemoration of International Holocaust Memorial Day. The visit of Yair Lapid, Israel’s Foreign Minister, in August 2021, the first visit of a top Israeli official to Morocco witnessed the opening of the Israeli Liaison Office in Rabat and signing of three more agreements on Foreign Office Consultations, Aviation and Culture.[vii]
6. Bilateral trade has surged, from $14.9 million in January-July 2020 to $20.8 million in the same period in 2021, based on figures from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics(excluding services and tourism). Israel’s Ministry of Regional Cooperation predicts that exports from Israel to Morocco would further increase to US$250 million per annum. The newly setup Moroccan-Israeli Business Council and the Morocco-Israel Chamber of Industry are facilitating contacts between the two business communities. Weekly flights are already operating with one million Israeli tourists expected to visit Morocco every year.[viii]
7. The Morocco-Israel Joint Declaration was the fourth Arab-Israeli Agreement (after UAE, Bahrain and Sudan) in four months in 2020, collectively called the Abraham Accords, named after Abraham to highlight the shared origin of belief between Judaism and Islam, espousing the monotheistic worship of the God of Abraham. [ix]
8. However, unlike the other three Arab-Israeli Agreements, the Moroccan Joint Declaration also enshrines a major policy shift of the US manifested in its commitment, to recognize of Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara, reaffirming US support for Morocco’s autonomy proposal as the only basis for a just and lasting solution to the dispute over the Western Sahara territory. Morocco and the Polisario Front, the armed group demanding independence for the region, and its majority Sahrawi ethnic groups, have been fighting over Western Sahara since Spain, the last colonial power withdrew from Morocco in 1975. The United Nations (UN), which brokered a ceasefire in 1991, recognizes neither the Moroccan nor the Polisario Front – proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s sovereignty over the region, and listsWestern Sahara under “non-self-governing territories”. The UNGA considers the status of Western Sahara to be “a question of decolonization which remained to be completed by the people of Western Sahara.”[x]
9. As a manifestation of its policy shift, the US, in the Joint Declaration, has committed to open its Consulate in Dakhla in Western Sahara territory. Until October 2020, 15 African countries had already opened their Consulates in either Laayoune or Dakhla. [xi]The US has now established a temporary Consulate Post in Dakhla in January 2021 as a transition to establishing the permanent Consulate within the near future.
10. The Joint Declaration was signed just before the Biden Presidency assumed office in January 2021. While the new US Administration has returned to its traditional position, on Israel and Palestine and the Palestinian aspirations for Statehood, the US continues to remain ambiguous on recognition of Morocco’s claim to the territory of Western Sahara. Interestingly, in January 2021, the Biden Administration had stated that it will review this decision, but in April 2021, the US Secretary of State told his Moroccan counterpart, that the US would not imminently reverse President Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s claim to the territory of Western Sahara. [xii]
11. This deliberate ambiguity of the US position was explained by Professor Stephen Zunes, Professor at the University of San Francisco, specializing in Middle-East politics in an interview in June 2021 to the Television Channel Al Jazeera, where he said “I think Biden is receiving a lot of pushback from the pro-Israeli elements, not to reverse the decision. At the same time, he is being pressurized by the bipartisan Members of the Congress, who are concerned about the rather dangerous precedent it sets”.[xiii]
Morocco’s Jewish Heritage
12. The two ground-breaking commitments in the Joint Declaration have their roots in Morocco’s historic Jewish heritage and its historic relations with the US.
13. Regarding the first commitment, prior to normalization of relations, and Israel’s establishment in 1948, Morocco was home to the largest Jewish community in the Arab world. Morocco had at its peak, a quarter of a million Jews. Their ancestors had settled in Morocco, from Spain and Portugal in 1478 fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition. Even at that time, the Moroccan Jews, mostly scholars, nurtured excellent relations with other Moroccan ethnic groups, the Berbers and the Moroccan Arabs, with shared cultural traditions. The Synagogues, the Mellahs (Jewish quarters) and the Jewish cemeteries in the imperial cities of Marrakech, Fez, Meknes and Essaouira bear testament to more than two thousand years of peaceful co-existence, until the 1960s.The Museum of Moroccan Judaism in Casablanca, established in 1995, is the only Jewish museum in the Muslim world. [xiv]
14. When Israel was founded in 1948, there was informal cooperation between the two countries including in security and defense related matters, that drew criticism from other Arab countries especially during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Despite, two large waves of migration of Jews from Morocco to Israel, from 1948-1951 and 1961-1967, the two countries continued to maintained unofficial relations with each other.[xv] In fact, the King’s Advisor is an influential Jewish Moroccan who has not only facilitated the growth of Morocco in both economic and political terms but has ensured the continuation of people-to-people contacts between the two countries. [xvi]
15. Morocco and Israel’s slow-level diplomatic relations established In the 1990s, after Israel’s interim peace accord with Palestine, were suspended after the second Palestinian Uprising in 2000. But informal cooperation continued. In recent times, Israel has provided Morocco with surveillance technology and training for the Moroccan intelligence agency.[xvii] Cooperation in this strategic sector is deepening as reflected in the recently signed Agreement on Cyber Defense Cooperation in July 2021.(6) Both Israel and Morocco have problems with the Iranian regime, recently reflected in their participation in the US-led February 2019 Warsaw Conference.[xviii]
16. Many of the vast majority of half a million Moroccan Jews, now constituting the second largest Jewish Community in Israel, are influential today, with five ministers in Israel’s current government possessing Moroccan ancestry. [xix]
17. The warmth shown by Moroccans towards their Jewish brethren has carved a special place in the hearts of the Moroccan Jews. Every year, Rabbis and Jewish community leaders across the world are invited for the anniversary celebrations of the Throne Day on 30 July in Rabat. Many Moroccan Jews living in Israel, Canada and the United States, return on vacation to Morocco to their ancestral homes. This affection is also buttressed by the confidence provided through Morocco’s policy of granting citizenship for life, a huge incentive for all Moroccan citizens in maintaining their ties and assets in Morocco, wherever they are in the world. A person does not lose his Moroccan nationality unless he or she voluntarily renounces it. Morocco’s Code of Nationality grants citizenship to a child born of a Moroccan parent. Furthermore, any child born in Morocco whether of foreign parents, born in Morocco, or of unknown parents, can claim Moroccan citizenship.[xx]
18. US’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara is the second commitment in the Joint Declaration.80 per cent of the disputed territory is controlled by Morocco. It is rich in natural resources, including Phosphate deposits and a rich collection of agricultural products and fish on its soil and coastal waters. When Spain decolonized in the mid-seventies, Morocco and Mauritania claimed sovereign control. But the International Court of Justice advised against any claim. Spain’s transfer of joint control to Morocco and Mauritania was disputed by the Polisario Front, established in 1973 which also obtained recognition from Algeria and the African Union for Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Mauritania abandoned its claim, but Morocco consolidated its control. The ensuing conflict caused the indigenous Sahrawis to flee to Algeria and Mauritania. The fighting ended after a United Nations (UN) mediated ceasefire in 1991 and the establishment under the UN Security Council Resolution UNSCR 690, of the Mission for the Organization of a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). [xxi]
19. Amongst the many proposals of the UN for a peaceful resolution to the issue, was the 2003 Baker Peace Plan that proposed a UN organized referendum for voters to choose integration with Morocco, autonomy or independence. It was abandoned due to Morocco’s objections. Subsequently, Morocco proposed its Autonomy Plan in 2006 providing for limited autonomy for the Sahrawis under Moroccan sovereign control.[xxii] Talks continued until the resignation in 2019, of Horst Kohler, the UN Envoy for Western Sahara. Since November 2020, the situation has remained tense.[xxiii]
20. The US, like most countries, had maintained a neutral position, with successive US Administrations even prohibiting bilateral aid to Morocco being used in Western Sahara.[xxiv] However, President Biden’s Administration, now appears to tacitly continue with Trump’s policy shift on Western Sahara, as it continues to formalize its 2020 decision, evident in the State Department’s decision in May 2021, to officially recognize the Abraham Accords, establishing a temporary Consulate in Dakhla, developing a new trade port there and introducing new maps in official US Agencies depicting Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty. [xxv]
21. The close relations between the US and Morocco has its roots in history. During the American Civil War in 1777, American merchant shipping vessels in the Mediterranean, were in need of protection from Moroccan pirates. Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah of Morocco not only extended protection but also permitted the American vessels to enter Morocco's ports (Tangiers, Sale, Larache and Mogador), under the same conditions as those nations which had treaties with Morocco. Thus, Morocco became the first country in the world to recognize United States’ independence, just a year and a half after the U.S. Declaration of Independence was issued. The 1786 Moroccan–American Treaty of Friendship was later signed in Europe by American diplomats John Adams and Thomas Jefferson making Morocco the first Amazigh, Arab, African, Muslim state to sign a treaty with America. In 1789, President George Washington wrote to Sultan MohamedIbn Abdullah expressing appreciation for the latter’s diplomatic initiative.
22. Renegotiated in 1836, the Treaty of Friendship is still in force, constituting the longest unbroken treaty relationship in U.S. history, with Tangier possessing the U.S.’s oldest diplomatic property in the world. [xxvi]
23. Morocco is also one of the few countries in Africato extend visa-free travel to American citizens. It is also the only country in Africa to have a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the US which, combined with Morocco’s FTA with the EU, makes the country a gateway for international trade.[xxvii] This importance has been recognized in Washington, as the US has invested in the Dakhla region to develop a new giant trade port. (25)
24. As one of America's oldest and closest allies in North Africa, Morocco has in recent times, assisted the U.S. Central Intelligence Agencywith questioning al-Qaeda members captured in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere during the administration of 43rd President George W. Bush, who designated the country as a Major non-NATO ally.[xxviii] Notably, after the signing of the Joint Declaration, the 2021 edition of the annual US-Morocco Joint Military Exercises called the African Lion, held in June 2021 in Tan Tan, was the largest US military exercise ever conducted since its inception with eight thousand personnel. David Greene, US Charge d’ Affaires in Morocco, dubbed it as “a critical component of the close strategic partnership between Morocco and the United States”.[xxix]
25. The Joint Declaration with its two-fold objective elicited mixed global reaction. While Morocco’s decision to normalize relations with Israel in this US-brokered deal was welcomed by the Western world, the Arab countries were divided. Palestinians have been critical of the Abraham Accords, stating that Arab countries have set back the cause of peace and condemned the Moroccan Joint Declaration. In Gaza, the Hamas termed the signing as a sin. Iran termed Morocco’s normalization of relations with Israel as a “betrayal” and a stab in the back of Palestine. It had earlier condemned the normalization Agreements of Bahrain and the UAE, as“a shameful move”.On the other hand, Egypt, which has an enduring Peace Treaty with Israel and Oman have welcomed the normalization of the relations. [xxx]
26. Regarding Western Sahara, the US’s shift in policy has not yet led other Western countries or the UN to abandon the traditional position for a referendum. In a related judgement, the European Union General Court in September 2021 annulled the 27-country bloc’s approval of Agriculture and Fishing Agreements that allow Morocco to export goods from Western Sahara. The case was brought to the Court by the Polisario. The latest ruling is likely to adversely affect Spain, the main beneficiary aggravating a diplomatic dispute with Morocco over more than eight thousand migrants entering Ceuta, a Spanish enclave and due to Spain providing Covid 19 care to a prominent Sahrawi leader. Spain maintains close ties with the Sahrawi people and many activists have studied in Spain. [xxxi]
27. At the same time, cognizant of the rich economic potential of the region and aware of the increasing economic footprint of other countries including the US in the region, the EU is loth to disrupt its agricultural trade links with Morocco as reflected in the EU-Morocco Joint Statement, issued immediately after the court Ruling.[xxxii]
28. Expectedly, the UN while welcoming the Joint Declaration, has reserved judgement on the Western Sahara reiterating that “the solution to the question (Western Sahara) can still be found based on the Security Council Resolutions“. The Polisario Front has condemned the Joint Declaration calling it “a flagrant violation “and has expressed satisfaction with the Ruling of the European Court calling it a “triumphant victory”. Algeria, opposing the Joint Declaration, instead accused Morocco of targeting more than 6,000 Algerian phones, with the Pegasus spyware, also blaming both Morocco and Israel of supporting the Movement for the self-determination of Kabylia. Subsequently, Algerian President Abdel madjid Tebboune alleged Moroccan involvement in the wildfires in northern Algeriaal though King Mohammed VI had offered assistance against them. In the end, Algeria broke relations with Morocco in August 2021 and also closed its airspace.[xxxiii]
29. The signing of the Joint Declaration has set new paradigms in the Middle East Peace Process and in the Western Sahara dispute. On one hand it has strengthened Morocco’s political heft as a stable, prosperous moderate North African country, with its strategic geographical location connecting to three continents physically and through its FTAs. For Israel, notwithstanding the protests from Palestine and other Arab countries, the normalization of ties with Morocco has not only strengthened its partnership with a country that continues to nurture ties with its Jewish community but also has created an opportunity for a more peaceful and prosperous environment for the Middle East. Both countries are likely to reap substantial economic gains throughnormalization of ties. Finally, the US’s tacit support to Morocco’s claim on the disputed territory of Western Sahara with its continued consolidation of economic activities there has ushered in a paradigm shift in the resolution of the Western Sahara issue, despite the existing UN resolution on it that would require to be factored in by the international community.
*Ambassador Kheya Bhattacharya, Former Ambassador of India to Morocco.
Disclaimer: Views are personal
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[xxxii] Ammann, Janos. Western Sahara: EU Court annuls trade and fishery deals with Morocco. EURACTIV.COM. [Online] 29 September 2021. https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/western-sahara-eu-court-annuls-trade-and-fishery-deals-with-morocco/
[xxxiii] Abdullah, Abdelrazzak bin. Algeria severs relations with Morocco. aa.com. [Online] 24 August 2021. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/world/algeria-severs-relations-with-morocco/2345035 .