Normalising with Israel: Morocco’s win-win deal

Lamees El Sharaqwy, Saturday 19 Dec 2020

Morocco’s decision to normalise relations with Israel this week has led to consternation in the region

Morocco’s win-win deal
Moroccans celebrate in front of the parliament (Photo: AFP)

Morocco became the most recent Arab country to announce the normalisation of relations with Israel on 10 December as part of a bigger deal in which the US will recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

The deal is widely seen as a carrot-and-stick package in which Morocco will agree to the normalisation in return for US support in claiming sovereignty over the long-disputed territory.

Outgoing US president Donald Trump has said he is offering “win-win deals” to the Arab countries to persuade them to normalise relations with Israel. Trump has presented non-repudiable offers under the so-called Abraham Accords to the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco that include benefits long sought by each country.

However, implementing some of these deals may entail conflicts or large amounts of compensation, like in the cases of Morocco and Sudan. They are also seen as promises that have yet to be realised.

Sudan was officially removed from the US states sponsoring terrorism list by Washington on 14 December. However, a lobby of Democratic Party senators is trying to impede the delisting decision by pushing a draft resolution through Congress to make Sudan pay compensation to victims of the Al-Qaeda attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US.

This is in addition to the 2016 US Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) that fines terror-linked states and makes them pay heavy compensation to the victims of the September 11 attacks.

According to Adnan Abu Amer, head of the Political Science Department at the University of the Ummah in Gaza, “the US administration has exploited sensitive issues in the Arab countries by granting special privileges if they establish normalisation with Israel. They are issues that need a long time to be solved on the ground, however.”

 “Trump has simply given hopeful promises about the internal affairs of Sudan and Morocco,” Amer told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Algeria has been irritated by the Moroccan decision, with Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad lashing out at the decision to normalise relations with Israel, saying it was an effort to destabilise his country. He complained of “a desire to bring the Zionist entity to our borders,” a reference to Israel.

Algeria, which borders both Morocco and the disputed Western Sahara, has actively supported the Polisario Front, a separatist movement of the Sahrawi ethnic group in the area, and it is home to more than 100,000 Sahrawis living in refugee camps. Mauritania, which has the longest border with Western Sahara, also sides with the unrecognised Sahrawi Republic in the Western Sahara.

According to Mohamed Al-Hilali, head of the Moroccan Centre for Contemporary Studies and Research, a think tank, “these developments should reduce the pressure on Algeria, which has devoted its efforts to defending the Sahara cause alone after the abandonment of Libya.”

He told the Weekly that he considered neighbouring Algeria, Morocco’s regional rival and the key foreign backer of the separatist Polisario Front, as “betting on a zero-sum situation.” Algeria should “benefit from the situation of curbing separatists as it has begun boosting a similar narrative domestically.”

But Moroccan-Israeli ties existed even before the normalisation. Israel and Morocco established low-level diplomatic relations during the 1990s following a thawing of ties between Israel and the Palestinians.

Those contacts were suspended in 2002 in response to the Second Intifada in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Since then, however, the relationship has continued informally, with tens of thousands of Israelis travelling to Morocco every year.

Morocco considers that the normalisation is not a spur-of-the-moment decision, according to Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita in an interview with the Israeli Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Sunday. He said the issue was not about “normalising ties” because “relations were already normal.”

“We’re talking about [re-formalising] the relations,” he added.

Bourita highlighted Morocco’s connections to Israel through its domestic Jewish community and the estimated 700,000 Israeli Jews of Moroccan descent.

“Morocco has an important history with the Jewish community, a history that is special in the Arab world,” he told the paper. “It’s my understanding that just this past year 70,000 Israelis came to visit here.”

According to Yehia Ghanem, a Middle East Affairs expert, “Moroccan-Israeli ties have a special nature that can’t be compared to the other normalising countries. They have existed for years. It’s like a secret marriage that’s only now being revealed.”

Adnan Abu Amer focused on the long procedures that may take place before applying the normalisation decision. “They’re not decisions made just by the stroke of a pen,” Amer said. “Normalisation with Israel may just be the tip of the iceberg, and there are other government procedures to be taken by the Pentagon, Congress, the US Department of State and lawmakers,” he said.

Amer believes that incoming US President Joe Biden will not pursue further normalisations unless there are “further negotiations about political, security and demographic matters.”

Al-Hilali said that “what has been achieved in the Western Sahara is the culmination of a long political and civil struggle and a sign of a new phase that includes international support for the political solution proposed by Morocco, which is a solution based on expanding its autonomy over the Sahara.”

US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara marked “an official transition to a political solution after gaining UN and international recognition,” Al-Hilali told the Weekly.

The Palestinians have denounced the normalisation deals, which have broken with decades of Arab League consensus that there should be no recognition of Israel until it agrees to a peace that includes the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Al-Hilali said that the transfer from a “clandestine normalisation” limited to commercial exchanges to “an open and political one” had caused a “popular shock.”

“Normalisation at this time is unjustified, especially since it comes during the lame-duck outgoing Trump administration that has been electorally defeated and is known for its bias towards tyrannical regimes and rejection of democratic choices,” he said.

The agreements concluded at the Khartoum Summit in 1967 and the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 state that no normalisation or Arab peace can be made except after resolving the Palestinian issue. “But the fact is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has neglected these principles by conducting Arab-Israeli normalisation without a real solution to the Palestinian issue,” Amer said.

After the start of the normalisation wave that began with the UAE and Bahrain, Palestine recalled its ambassadors to the UAE and Bahrain in August and September, respectively, condemning the moves as a “stab in the back” and a “betrayal.”

It has been claimed that Ramallah has since quietly returned its ambassadors.

Egypt has historically led negotiations on the Palestinian issue. However, the new rapprochements between the Arabs and Israel may weaken its influence in leading peace efforts in the region, according to Amer.

“The Gulf countries will appear as peace-brokers in the region after announcing open ties with Tel Aviv,” he said.

Normalisation would do “more harm than good,” he said, as it distanced the Arabs from the Palestinian cause, made Israel seem “a partner and not a foe,” and lowered expectations for a real solution to the crisis and could force them to accept unsatisfactory deals.

Biden’s presidency could be a shift in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as he has a different approach from Trump on the issue.

Jordanian expert on Israeli affairs Ayman D Hunaiti, told the Weekly that the normalisation deals between the Arab countries and Israel would “accelerate the search for a political solution towards the two-state solution. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was eagerly awaiting Biden’s victory, while for the Israelis, they were awaiting the return of Trumpism that implemented decisions that no previous US administration had dared to make, like the decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the recognition of the Syrian Golan Heights as part of Israel.”

Saeed Okasha, an Israeli affairs analyst at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and -Strategic Studies in Cairo, told the Weekly that such deals could make the Palestinians “more flexible in terms of their expectations about the two-state solution and more open to make major concessions to accept a modified version of Trump’s plan, but under the auspices of the Democrats.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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