Morocco has become the fourth Arab nation this year to recognize Israel, President Donald Trump announced Thursday, as he in turn fulfilled a decades-old goal of Morocco by backing its sovereignty in disputed Western Sahara.
With barely a month left in his presidency, Trump, a staunch backer of Israel, tweeted: “Israel and the Kingdom of Morocco have agreed to full diplomatic relations – a massive breakthrough for peace in the Middle East!”
The White House said Trump spoke by telephone with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, who was quoted as also agreeing to expand economic and cultural cooperation with Israel.
The US president “recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara territory,” where the Algerian-backed Polisario Front contests Rabat’s control, the White House said.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East pointman, said that Morocco and Israel would unshutter liaison offices in Tel Aviv and Rabat, which Morocco closed in 2000 amid the second Palestinian uprising, and would open embassies “in the near future.”
Morocco, which has quietly let in Israeli travelers in recent years, will also permit direct flights with Israel, Kushner told reporters.
Trump — due to leave office on January 20, despite unprecedented and so far failed attempts to overturn the election result — has racked up historic advances in bringing Israel and Arab states together.
Morocco joins the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in the White House’s “Abraham Accords” initiative.
The US diplomatic push has allowed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to weaken the Arab world’s previously united front over the Palestinians’ struggle for statehood, with Gulf Arabs sharing the US and Israeli priority of confronting Iran.
Previously, only neighboring Egypt and Jordan had made peace with Israel and, until a few months ago, many doubted that other Arab nations would recognize Israel so long as Netanyahu resists concessions to the Palestinians.
The biggest prize for Washington would be getting Saudi Arabia to normalize ties with Israel. While this still appears to be some way off, Kushner said that Riyadh’s recognition was an “inevitability” even if the timeframe was uncertain.
Morocco shares Gulf Arabs’ concerns about Iran, and in 2018 it severed diplomatic relations as it accused the clerical state of backing the Polisario, charges denied by Tehran.
But Morocco won a major prize with its recognition of Israel — Trump declaring US support for its control of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony whose status has been disputed for more than four decades.
Morocco controls 80 percent of the vast, largely desert territory, including its phosphate deposits and its fishing waters.
But the Polisario, which is made up of the local Sahrawi people, fought a war for independence from 1975 to 1991 and demands a referendum on self-determination.
The group has long received support from neighboring Algeria, which has also welcomed thousands of Sahrawi refugees.
Trump issued a proclamation formalizing the new US position and tweeted that “Morocco’s serious, credible, and realistic autonomy proposal is the ONLY basis for a just and lasting solution for enduring peace and prosperity!” in Western Sahara.
President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team declined immediate comment. Biden has backed Arab recognition of Israel but the change in position on Western Sahara is unusual for a lame-duck administration
Trump’s move is a potential game-changer after years of slow-moving, UN-backed diplomacy. Morocco’s support has come mostly from the Arab world and smaller African and Latin American nations.
“Frankly, there’s just been no progress on a resolution,” Kushner said.
The Trump administration is “recognizing the inevitability of what is going to occur, but it also can break the logjam to help advance the issues in the Western Sahara,” he said.
“We want the Polisario people to have a better opportunity to live a better life and the president felt like this conflict was holding them back.”
The low-intensity conflict saw a brief spurt of interest under Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton, who had tried to broker a UN-led agreement in the 1990s.
Bolton has been critical of what he saw as Moroccan intransigence and successfully pushed for new negotiations but he was fired by Trump last year.