WASHINGTON – Israel and Morocco have agreed to normalize relations as President Donald Trump, in his final weeks in office, announced the fourth Arab-Israeli agreement in four months on Thursday. In a related major policy shift, the United States agreed to recognize Morocco’s claim over the long-disputed Western Sahara region as part of the deal.
The agreement adds to Trump's Mideast legacy just as Joe Biden prepares to assume the presidency in January with an eye toward revamping America's policies in the region, from Israel to Iran, Iraq and beyond. With Israel, Biden has pledged to return to a more traditional U.S. position, particularly regarding the Palestinians and their aspirations for statehood.
Trump said Israel and Morocco would restore diplomatic and other ties, including the immediate reopening of liaison offices in Tel Aviv and Rabat, the eventual opening of embassies and joint overflight rights for the two nations' airlines.
The agreement builds on one of his main foreign policy accomplishments, winning broader recognition of Israel in the Arab world under the rubric of the “Abraham Accords.” For Morocco, it's a major achievement, too: U.S. recognition of its claim to Western Sahara, something not recognized by the United Nations and the subject of an international dispute for decades.
But it's a blow for hopes for autonomy for those in Western Sahara who have fought for independence and want a referendum on the territory's future. The former Spanish colony, with a population estimated at 350,000 to 500,000, is believed to have considerable offshore oil deposits and mineral resources.
The deal is also one more setback for the Palestinians, who have bitterly complained about what they say are biased pro-Israel steps from Trump. He has sidelined the Palestinian Authority, recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv, slashed assistance for the Palestinians and reversed course on the illegitimacy of Israeli settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians.
The White House said Trump and Morocco's King Mohammed VI had agreed that Morocco would “resume diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel and expand economic and cultural cooperation to advance regional stability.”
“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.
In recognizing Morocco's claim over Western Sahara, Trump noted that Morocco had been the first country to recognize the United States as an independent nation just a year after the U.S. declared its independence from Britain in 1776.
“It is thus fitting we recognize their sovereignty over the Western Sahara,” Trump said.
The deal is the result of talks conducted by the president's senior adviser, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his chief international negotiator, Avi Berkowitz. Kushner said the dispute over Western Sahara was an anachronism that needed to be addressed by a bold move. He likened it to Trump's recognition of Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which was seized from Syria.
“It further enhances Israel’s security, while creating opportunities for Morocco and Israel to deepen their economic ties and improve the lives of their people,” Kushner said.
In a statement, the palace in Rabat said the king had promised Trump he would facilitate direct flights to transport Jews of Moroccan origin and Israeli tourists to and from Morocco and re-open the liaison offices, which had been closed in 2002.
Morocco is the fourth Arab nation to recognize Israel as the Trump administration seeks to expand a diplomatic framework that began over the summer with an agreement between the Jewish state and the United Arab Emirates.
Bahrain and Sudan have followed suit and administration officials have also been trying to bring Saudi Arabia into the grouping.
All these countries are geographically far removed from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, making it easier to strike deals with Israel and the U.S. for their own particular interests. Morocco also has close ties with Saudi Arabia, which has given its tacit support to the normalization process with Israel, even at a time when peacemaking with the Palestinians is at a standstill.
Morocco, a country with centuries of Jewish history, has long been rumored to be ready to establish ties with Israel.
Before Israel’s establishment in 1948, Morocco was home to a large Jewish population, many of whose ancestors migrated to North Africa from Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition. Today, hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews trace their lineage to Morocco, making it one of the country’s largest sectors of Israeli society. A small community of Jews, estimated at several thousand people, continues to live in Morocco.
Morocco has for years had informal ties with Israel. They established low-level diplomatic relations during the 1990s following Israel’s interim peace accords with the Palestinians, but those ties were suspended after the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000.
Since then, the informal ties have continued, and an estimated 50,000 Israelis travel to Morocco each year on trips to learn about the Jewish community and retrace their family histories.
The palace said the king told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday that his “position in support of the Palestinian cause is constant” and that Morocco supports a two-state solution.
U.S. backing for Morocco's Western Sahara claim has long been a rumored, but unconfirmed, bargaining chip in talk about diplomatic ties. Morocco had claimed the vast desert area as its “southern provinces” since 1975 as the Polisario Front, based in southern Algeria, wants its independence. A recent dust-up with the Polisario brought the issue back into headlines.
The Polisario denounced the move, saying it was a violation of international law.
“The position expressed by Donald Trump is a blatant violation of the United Nations Charter and its resolutions and of international legitimacy and constitutes a major obstacle to efforts aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the conflict between Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco,” it said in a statement.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the Israel-Morocco agreement but reserved judgment on the Western Sahara, according to a spokesman.
Associated Press writers Josef Federman in Jerusalem, Elaine Ganley and Angela Charlton in Paris, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, and Tarik El Barakah in Rabat, Morocco, contributed to this report.