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Israel, Morocco agree to normalize relations in latest US-brokered deal

As part of the deal, the US will recognize Morocco's claim over the disputed Western Sahara region

Reuters , Thursday 10 Dec 2020
Netanyahu
King Mohammed VI of Morocco (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R). Reuters
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Israel and Morocco agreed on Thursday to normalize relations in a deal brokered with U.S. help, making Morocco the fourth Arab country to set aside hostilities with Israel in the past four months.

As part of the agreement, U.S. President Donald Trump changed longstanding U.S. policy and recognized Morocco's sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

The Western Sahara is a desert region where a decades-old territorial dispute has pitted Morocco against the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, a breakaway movement that seeks to establish an independent state in the territory.

Trump sealed the agreement in a phone call with Morocco's King Mohammed VI on Thursday, the White House said.

"Another HISTORIC breakthrough today! Our two GREAT friends Israel and the Kingdom of Morocco have agreed to full diplomatic relations – a massive breakthrough for peace in the Middle East!" Trump tweeted.

Morocco is the fourth country since August to strike a deal aimed at normalizing relations with Israel. The others were the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

Much of the momentum behind the deal-making has been to present a united front against Iran and roll back its regional influence.

With Trump due to leave office on Jan. 20, the Morocco deal could be among the last his team, led by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and U.S. envoy Avi Berkowitz, will negotiate before giving way to President-elect Joe Biden's incoming administration.

Kushner told reporters on a conference call it was inevitable that Saudi Arabia would eventually strike a similar deal with Israel.

Israeli cabinet minister Rafael Peretz described Thursday's announcement of a U.S.-brokered normalisation deal with Morocco as "historic and joyous", in a first response from Israel.

"My parents, who immigrated from Morocco and left their entire lives behind, always spoke of peace and about good relations with the Arab neighbours in Morocco," he tweeted.

"The time has come for us to do so, too."

FULL DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS

Under the agreement, Morocco will establish full diplomatic relations and resume official contacts with Israel, grant overflights and also direct flights to and from Israel for all Israelis.

"They are going to reopen their liaison offices in Rabat and Tel Aviv immediately with the intention to open embassies. And they are going to promote economic cooperation between Israeli and Moroccan companies," Kushner told Reuters.

El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. said it was examining the possibility of establishing direct flights between Israel and Morocco after the United States announced on Thursday that the two countries would normalise relations.

Such flights "would be very popular among Israeli clientele," the carrier said in a statement.

Trump's agreement to change U.S. policy toward the Western Sahara was the linchpin for getting Morocco's agreement and a major shift away from a mostly neutral stance.

In Rabat, Morocco's royal court said Washington will open a consulate in Western Sahara as part of Morocco's deal with Israel.

A White House proclamation said the United States believes that an independent Sahrawi State is "not a realistic option for resolving the conflict and that genuine autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty is the only feasible solution."

"We urge the parties to engage in discussions without delay, using Morocco's autonomy plan as the only framework to negotiate a mutually acceptable solution," it said.

Washington had supported a 1991 ceasefire between Morocco and the Western Sahara's Polisario Front independence movement that called for a referendum to resolve the issue. Last month, after a border incident, the Polisario pulled out of that deal and announced a return to armed struggle.

The Trump White House has tried to get Saudi Arabia to sign on to a normalization deal with Israel, believing if the Saudis agreed other Arab nations would follow, but the Saudis have signaled they are not ready.

One more Middle East breakthrough is possible. Last week Kushner and his team traveled to Saudi Arabia and Qatar seeking an end to a three-year rift between Doha and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

A tentative deal has been reached on this front but it was far from clear whether a final agreement  will be sealed. 

While Biden is expected to move U.S. foreign policy away from Trump's "America First" posture, he has indicated he will continue the pursuit of what Trump calls "the Abraham Accords" between Israel and Arab and Muslim nations.

*This story was edited by Ahram Online. 

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