The Winners and Losers of Israel’s Normalization Deal With Morocco

In the English language, “normalization” is a nice-sounding word but, like most international agreements, it produces winners and losers.
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December 15, 2020 12:40 EDT

On December 10, Israel and Morocco agreed to normalize relations. Israel has been trying to normalize relations with Arab-majority countries for decades. The process began in 1979 with Egypt. In 1994, Jordan followed. In recent months, Israel has normalized ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

The Abraham Accords: A Chance to Rethink the Arab-Israeli Conflict


In the English language, “normalization” is a nice-sounding word but, like most international agreements, it produces winners and losers. The Israel-Morocco agreement can best be seen as a win-lose-win-lose-win arrangement. This framework is helpful to understand the new pact.

Why Israel Wins

The first winner of the normalization agreement is obviously Israel. Another Arab-majority Muslim country has recognized its legitimacy. This will lead to increased trade and enhance Israel’s security. The deal includes the reopening of liaison offices in Tel Aviv and Rabat. They were closed in 2000 when low-level relations broke down after the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising. The deal also includes the eventual opening of embassies and the commencing of flights between the two countries.

In a televised address, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waxed lyrical about the “warm relationship” between “the people of Morocco and the Jewish people.” He also thanked Morocco’s King Mohammed VI “for taking this historic decision to bring a historic peace between us.” Jews have a historical presence in Morocco, home to has the largest Jewish community in the Arab world.

There are approximately 3,000 Jews in the country, down from the 200,000 who lived there before Israel’s establishment. Andre Azoulay, a Moroccan Jew, is an adviser to the king. Morocco opened a Jewish culture center earlier this year in Essaouira. The country has also made efforts to preserve Jewish sites. It is important to note that hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis are of Moroccan descent. This includes Miri Regev, a senior minister and close ally of Netanyahu. She said that Israeli-Moroccans had “dreamed of peace with the country in which they were born, and from where our cultural roots are so greatly derived.”

Like the rest of the Arab world, Morocco opposed Israel’s creation in 1948. Until now, Morocco did not recognize Israel. That said, the country maintained a clandestine relationship with Israel. For decades, Israeli Jews have been coming back to Morocco as tourists. In 1994, the country hosted Israeli delegates at the Middle East North Africa Economic Summit in Casablanca, the first time Israel attended a regional conference hosted by an Arab country.

Israel’s agreement with Morocco fits Netanyahu’s doctrine of “peace for peace” instead of “land for peace.” which had been the template for virtually all peace efforts until he came to power. Netanyahu is not opposed in principle to making peace with Israel’s enemies but he does support any Israeli withdrawal from the territories the country captured in 1967. With the Morocco deal, Netanyahu has scored another win for Israel and himself.

Why Others Lose or Win?

While Israel has won, the Palestinians have lost yet again. Although King Mohammed has said that the “measures do not in any manner affect Morocco’s ongoing and sustained commitment to the just Palestinian cause,” Palestinian officials condemned the agreement. They have also objected to recent deals with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan, saying these encourage Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights. Palestinians believe Arab states are reneging on their historic promise not to embrace ties with Israel until Palestinians achieve statehood. The normalization of ties also undermines their ability to negotiate directly with Israel.

Morocco also wins from the normalization of ties with Israel. Trade and tourism will bring much-needed economic benefits. In addition, the US has proposed a $1-billion arms sale to Morocco. In an apparent quid pro quo for Morocco’s deal with Israel, US President Donald Trump recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. He tweeted: “Morocco’s serious, credible, and realistic autonomy proposal is the ONLY basis for a just and lasting solution for enduring peace and prosperity!”

Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony largely controlled by Morocco. When Spain moved out in 1975, Morocco moved in. For many decades, an Algerian-backed pro-independence organization known as the Polisario Front has battled Moroccan troops. A 16-year-long insurgency led to a UN-brokered truce in 1991. It promised a referendum on self-determination that is yet to be held. 

Self-determination could be achieved in a number of different ways, including a vote on the type of autonomy granted to the territory. Too many confuse self-determination with independence. It is one of many potential options and outcomes. It is important to remember that the people living in Western Sahara could easily vote to remain in Morocco.

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Morocco has consistently maintained that Western Sahara is an integral part of its territory. The country has lobbied hard in Washington to win favor for its 2006 autonomy plan. In 2016, the then-US Secretary of State John Kerry declared support for this initiative. This followed on from the support Morocco won from the US Congress. In April 2009, 233 members of the House of Representatives and, in March 2010, 54 senators sent letters of support for Morocco’s autonomy plan. 

In 2016, Morocco successfully lobbied the US Congress to give assistance to Western Sahara. The $1-million grant went to a civil society and local governance program, giving de facto recognition to Morocco’s claim on Western Sahara. Now, the US has become the first country to officially recognize that claim. 

As Morocco has won, the Polisario Front has lost. The rebel movement was seeking to establish an independent state and “regrets highly” the US decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Oubi Bchraya, the Polisario’s representative in Europe, has rallied the flag of revolt by saying the change in US policy “will not change an inch of the reality of the conflict and the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination.” Yet it is clear that prospects for self-determination and independence have receded. As a result, Algeria has also ended up on the losing side as the chief backer of the Polisario Front.

The Israel-Morocco deal is a win not only for the lame-duck Trump administration, but also for American foreign policy. Morocco was the first country to recognize US independence as early as 1777. It also became the first to sign a treaty with the young nation in 1786. The US and Israel have had close relations since Harry Truman’s administration recognized Israel on May 14, 1948, the very first day of its existence. Two American friends coming together has boosted US interests in the Middle East and North Africa region.

When Joe Biden moves into the White House, this deal will stick. He will move away from Trump’s “America First” foreign policy but he will not renege on deals with old allies. On the campaign trail, Biden welcomed the Abraham Accords signed by Israel, Bahrain and the UAE. He is likely to do the same with the Israel-Morocco deal.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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