The Prospects of the Moroccan-Israeli Normalization and Its Impact on the Palestine Issue

Morocco became the fourth Arab country to normalize relations with Israel in 2020. This announcement was accompanied by a “poisoned” American gift, which is the US recognition of Western Sahara as part of Morocco, to make it appear as a trade-off of normalization with recognition. It was clear that the Moroccan decision was primarily that of the royal institution, as it is in control of the foreign affairs. This has put the Justice and Development Party, which steers the government and is principally and historically opposed to normalization, in a critical situation.

The normalization scenarios are summarized in either an active normalization path—along the lines of the UAE and Bahrain, or a calm normalized path along the Egyptian and Jordanian lines, or a bumpy normalization road that could be jolted by the escalation of resistance in Palestine, as well as the exit of the Justice and Development Party from the government and the rise of the popular Moroccan opposition. Morocco’s regime will try to manage a calm normalization to gain political, economic, military and technological support from Israel and the US, and at the same time, the king will seek to preserve his symbolic role as chair of the Jerusalem Committee in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Introduction

The Moroccan Royal Court issued a statement announcing the normalization of ties with Israel, however, it stressed that “Morocco supports a solution of two states living side-by-side in peace and security and that negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides remain the only way to achieve a final, lasting and comprehensive settlement of this conflict,” and “stressed that these measures affect in no way Morocco’s permanent and sustained commitment to the just Palestinian cause and its determination to continue to contribute effectively and constructively to a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”

The declaration stated also the following:

• To grant authorizations for direct flights for the transportation of members of the Moroccan Jewish community and Israeli tourists to and from Morocco;

• Resume official contacts with counterparts and diplomatic relations as soon as possible;

• Promote innovative relations in the economic and technological fields, including working to reopen liaison offices in both countries, as was the case previously and for several years until 2002. [1]

The US President Donald Trump proudly announced the deal, at a time the presidential election results showed that he had lost. He wrote on Twittter, “Our two Great friends Israel and the Kingdom of Morocco have agreed to full diplomatic relations.” The White House statement announced, “The agreement will allow the two to work to promote increased economic cooperation, reopen the liaison offices in Rabat and Tel Aviv, and discuss other areas of cooperation,” and that “the region will become more and more stable, secure, and prosperous.” [2]

In addition, to confirm the US commitment that the terms of the deal would be implemented, it announced that it will open a US consulate in the Western Sahara territory, in Dakhla on the Atlantic Coast. It seems that the US temptation to resume normalization with Israel goes beyond what was announced in the agreement. Some sources mentioned that the US is negotiating with Morocco a $1 billion arms sale that includes four sophisticated large aerial drones, the MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones made by General Atomics, and AGM-114 Hellfire, Paveway and JDAM precision-guided munitions made by Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing. In addition, the US development office is considering investments worth up to $3 billion in Morocco over three years, [3] perhaps to implement the tender to construct a port in the city of Dakhla on the desert coast, particularly since the Moroccan Ministry of Equipment called for proposals to establish the port.

With this agreement, Morocco will become the fourth Arab country to sign a normalization agreement in 2020 under US auspices. The UAE and Bahrain had signed an agreement on 15/9/2020, and Sudan announced on 10/23/2020 its approval to normalize ties, months after the meeting of Lieutenant-General ‘Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, chairman of the Transitional Military Council, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Uganda.

Morocco relations with Israel had not been completely severed, as there was an old relationship between the two parties that tended to be secretive, however, Moroccan diplomacy is not embarrassed to reveal some of its milestones, for it could be described as warm relations. This relationship emerged clearly after the announcement of the 1993 Oslo Accords, whereas since the 1960s, there have been security, military, and political relations. Actually, Morocco is the only Arab country whose constitution (2011) recognizes the Hebraic constituent as a component of the national identity. Therefore, the bilateral special relations are active, where about a million Jews of Moroccan origin reside in Israel and move freely between Morocco and Israel.

This file, like all files related to foreign policy, is steered by the monarchy, practically leaving no room for the opinion of the government, which is appointed by the king, or the parliament.

First: The Conditions of the Normalization Decision

This file was not opened due to a peace process development or at a Palestinian or Arab request, actually there is no Arab or international project or initiative on this track that calls for embarking on normalization. Hence, this development is completely out of the Palestinian context. Moreover, the Moroccan Royal Court did not say that this move was to support the Palestine issue and protect Jerusalem, as was in the UAE case.

Furthermore, this issue could not be considered within the context of developing Moroccan-US relations, for Trump has officially lost the presidential race. Therefore, any development of relationships must take into consideration the new president, who wants to start his presidency with accomplishments. Indeed, the losing US administration wants to deprive Joe Biden of this gift, which included an unusual political concession that surprised the establishment and its long-established traditions in US foreign policy.

We do not know if this normalization deal took place at a Moroccan, US or Israeli initiative. But it is clear that the US has made an unusual quick forceful move, with an exceptional momentum by the top level US administration—led by the president’s son-in-law Jared Khushner—to complete this file. For this file includes strategic US approaches, including changing the 40-year old US policy towards the Western Sahara issue; the US administration was committed to the UN resolution to organize a referendum in Western Sahara, which Morocco opposes, and instead offers autonomy under the Moroccan monarchy. It is clear that the US administration was keen to speed up this announcement for considerations related to Trump’s “defeated” status, so as to portray him as a hero, who accomplished a lot for Israel, even in his worst political situations. Perhaps the Western Sahara file was the “poisoned gift” that the US offered in order to encourage Morocco to rush towards normalization, convince the Moroccan people to agree or remain silent about normalization, and alleviate the popular objection to it.

Remarkably, this US move had been preceded by the opening of an Emirati consulate in the Western Sahara by about a month. This confirms that there has been full coordination with the UAE that played a certain role to facilitate this deal and converge the views. Perhaps the objective is to expand normalization, confine opposition positions, and form a US strategic alliance that includes influential and active Arab parties that share the US vision.

It was also remarkable that despite the Western Sahara file being the most frequently present files in European foreign policy, there were no European roles in this normalization move. This means that Europe was not consulted in this declaration and the extent of its resilience, or concerning its impact on Europe. Even France, which is known to support Morocco in this issue, said that it is committed to a political solution, while Russia condemned the US position.

Algeria and Mauritania also were not consulted on this matter, although for Algeria, it is a matter of strategic national security, and not only a matter of principle.

As for the Palestinians, they were not consulted due to the great political weakness of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the decline of Arab political support for it, and the lack of Arab commitment to the Arab peace initiative. Despite all that, and contrary to what happened with the Emirati and Bahraini move, the Palestinian leadership did not take any countermeasures against the Moroccan move, perhaps because the King of Morocco called the PA President Mahmud ‘Abbas and assured him that Morocco is committed to the two-state solution. This call appeased ‘Abbas, and this was not done by the Emirati and Bahraini leaderships, for the UAE supports Arafat’s bitter opponent, Muhammad Dahlan.

The UN was also not consulted, particularly since the UN resolution considers Western Sahara to be a disputed territory, and that a referendum is the guarantor of ending the crisis; either join Morocco or self-determination. It is the referendum that was agreed upon after a long 16-year military war between the Polisario Front and the Kingdom of Morocco, which resulted in the displacement of thousands of Sahrawis to refugee camps in southwestern Algeria and to Morocco. This happened 45 years ago, after Spain withdrew from the Saharan region.

Also, the African Union was not present in this US decision, especially since the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which was declared in 1976, is recognized by 80 countries and has full membership in the African Union. It also noted that there are 17 Arab and African countries that recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara, and have opened diplomatic missions there.

In 2016, Morocco decided to expel 84 international employees, including the staff of the African Union Mission of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). In addition, Morocco rejected the visit of the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to Rabat and Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara, and the headquarters of the MINURSO mission.

At the same time, we note that the static situation in Western Sahara, which lasted for many years without a striking military or political movement, has changed a few months ago, when on 11/13/2020 the Moroccan army moved to stop the Sahrawi demonstrations, and the blocking of the road axis crossing the buffer zone of Guerguerat connecting Morocco and Mauritania. Morocco decided to take action against what it called unacceptable provocations of the Algeria-backed Polisario Front militias in the buffer zone of Guerguerate, which may develop into a military action that affects Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara. Morocco saw that it had the right to fully dispose of what it considered part of its territory, while the Algerian statements intensified after the seizure of Guerguerat.

Second: The Possible Paths (Scenarios) of Normalization Between Israel and Morocco

First: An Active Normalization Path

In this scenario, normalization would be active and effective, similar to the UAE and Bahrain cases, given the strong normalization steps in the past months, the weakness and disintegration of the Arab scene, and the US temptations and incentives provided to Rabat, in addition to the huge number of Moroccan Jews residing in Israel, who would seek to give great impetus to the normalization process.

Second: A Calm Normalized Path

This would be similar to Egypt’s and Jordan’s normalizations. It would be aware of the strong and deep hostility and opposition of the Moroccan people to normalization, with no desire to collide with the public opinion. Therefore, normalization would be within the official frameworks of the regime, focusing on politics, tourism, and some economic aspects. In this scenario, attempts would be made to show normalization as a national gain; the US support to Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara, in addition to Moroccan political, economic, military and technological benefits as a result of this normalization. Endeavors would be made to preserve the king’s image as a supporter of the Palestine issue and as the chair of the Jerusalem Committee in the OIC.

Third: A Stumbling Normalization

This path expects confusion and turmoil for the normalization process, due to the exit of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) from the government and its fall. Consequently new elections would be held, PJD would join the opposition and the anti-normalization popular actions would escalate. This path may be supported by the escalation of resistance operations in Palestine, the continuous Israeli attacks on the land, people and the holy sites, or any move to annex parts of the West Bank (WB). This means that freezing or severing the relations with Israel is possible as circumstances change on the ground, as happened after the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifadah, when Morocco froze its relations with Israel in 2002.

Weighing between the paths (the scenarios), it is unlikely that the Moroccan normalization with Israel will take an active form, due to the strong popular opposition, the relative political party activity, and the king’s desire to maintain his stereotypical image as the protector/patron of Jerusalem. Therefore, this assessment tends to favor the occurrence of calm normalization that would serve the Israeli and Moroccan regime interests, with the remaining possibility of confusion or faltering of this normalization, if any Intifadah in WB or war on Gaza Strip (GS) erupt, and internal public opinion pressure increases.
Normalization has turned into a subject of major public debate in Morocco, the controversy spread abroad, and voices denouncing and opposing normalization became stronger and louder, especially on social media platforms. Various political, religious and intellectual fronts, and sectors of the political, party and trade union elites took part in these discussions, who seem keen to refuse to link a national issue with normalization.

Politically speaking, Morocco has scored a major achievement with one of its central causes in return for normalization, and this was not strange compared to its previous official political behavior. Therefore, it is not likely that there will be an imminent political setback in this matter.

Nevertheless, the biggest problem in this normalization is that it is full of emerging challenges. For the nature of Israeli behavior inside Palestine constitutes a great burden on the Moroccan policy. Therefore, the scope of normalization will be confined to medium and small levels, and with the passage of time will get smaller at the grassroots level, and so will the interaction of normalization on the ground. These interactions will be at the heart of political rivalries.” However, the security and strategic aspects of this normalization, associated with the monarchy, will remain steady, as it is far from the spotlight.

Third: The Future of the Israel–Morocco Normalization Agreement

The link between the US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara and the normalization with Israel cause ambivalence for the Moroccan people. As much as they are happy with this US recognition, they know that it was the result of political blackmail at the expense of the Palestine issue, and if the US administration was keen on Morocco’s interest, it would have helped them to reclaim occupied Ceuta and Melilla first. The joy is confusing and incomplete, for both the supporters and opponents of normalization. To cover their behavior and ensure continued popular support for this agreement, some of the normalization supporters will try to devalue the Palestine issue and those responsible for it, perhaps even be hostile to it and talk about the priority of Morocco and its interests first, i.e., they would play the patriotism card.

The short-term analysis excludes the prospects for stability in the Western Sahara region as a result of the US recognition, rather it will complicate the scene more. The US recognition could lead to renewed clashes in Western Sahara and would end decades of calm. Actually, the ceasefire agreement that had been in effect since 1991 between the Polisario Front and Morocco under the UN auspices has collapsed, and the former has resumed its military operations against the Moroccan fortifications in the Sahara along the security fence after the Moroccan military attack on the Guerguerat area.

This recognition will lead to a loss of confidence in any future US position and would weaken its initiatives, because it has become a biased party, which would also make the parties lose confidence in the UN peace settlement. This matter will also cause a continuous conflict between the UN and the US administration over this file.

In addition, this matter could develop into an increase in the smuggling of migrants across the Sahara to Morocco, if Algeria and the Polisario decide to turn a blind eye to the organized criminal groups engaging in such activities.

It could also turn the region into a point that attracts some movements close to al-Qaeda’s tendencies and way of thinking, especially since it is close to their deployment area, south of the Sahara desert.

It seems that the next US president will not be able to backtrack on Trump’s announcement, lest he angers the Moroccan and Israeli allies, and perhaps this matter is the least of his concerns. The most that can be expected is that Washington would announce its keenness to review this decision, seek to convince Algeria that it will practically not affect the situation on the ground, support the appointment of a new UN envoy for peace, and provide the opportunity to pass the previously proposed Moroccan vision to end the conflict, since there was a long stalemate in this case.

Despite the immorality of this blackmail and its negative consequences for the Palestinian people and their issue, it does not seem that there is a chance to retreat from this normalization in light of the confusion arising from the direct political gain. Perhaps the biggest reason for this weak possibility is that the Moroccan monarchy strongly supports this recognition, and that it made this decision despite its knowledge of its many negative consequences. As for most Moroccan political forces, they are committed to the political choices of the monarchy, therefore the chances of opposing this agreement within the political organization seem very slim, and it will be limited to popular and trade union activities only. Consequently, this matter would cause tension in the Moroccan street, sympathetic to the Palestine issue in general, and could lead to limited disturbances or popular sanctions for all political parties that contributed to this normalization, accepted it, justified it, or remained silent regarding it.

Perhaps the first victim of this normalization will be the Islamic-oriented government of Saad Eddine El Othmani, which became stuck between the hammer and the anvil: Its conviction and commitment to the ceiling of monarchy on one hand, and its conviction to support the Palestine issue and reject normalization. This difficult balance has brought on offensive criticism, where the government and its PJD main party, were unable to provide a convincing answer to their own public or to the general public.

Notably, this popular, trade union and national opposition to normalization will find a group opposing it, supported by the authorities; in particular the business class and the influential people close to the authority circles, in addition to the Jewish community in Morocco, who enjoy an effective network of relationships within the Moroccan establishment and some related societies. This community will work hard through cultural, economic, touristic and political platforms, to make normalization appear to be widespread and enjoying popular acceptance. This, in turn, will give an impression of the strength and spread of the normalization movement, causing an overlapping situation among normalization opponents, combining retraction with provocation.

The Moroccan Jewish community will invest in its relations with some of the Francophone Amazigh parties, the elites of which it was able to penetrate, in order to support the marketing of normalization and fortify its presence in Moroccan society.

Fourth: The Direct Impact of Moroccan Normalization on the Palestine Issue

The most dangerous matter in this normalization is that it has inserted Israeli interests into the heart of the Moroccan foreign policy concerns, and that Morocco has abolished the state of hostility with Israel, and became interested in their bilateral cooperation and friendship. Thus, regardless of the official position sympathetic to the popular environment, the political system has removed itself from the equation of direct support of the Palestinian struggle, to the equation of mediation and interest management, and this is a great loss for the Palestine issue.

Based on the above, the pro-resistance Palestinian political movement will find official diplomatic and political blockages from Morocco.

Perhaps the Palestinians and their supporters will have a small margin of maneuver in Morocco, in which they would be able to present the human aspect of their cause, without going beyond the boundaries set by the monarchy.

It seems that Morocco will be in a difficult position at its first test; when Israel goes back to its normal behavior of being highly violent and brutal with the Palestinians; and it will be in a more difficult one, when Israel increases its Judaization measures in Jerusalem and control of al-Aqsa Mosque. Particularly, since the Moroccan King is still adhering to that honorary capacity as the “chair of the OIC Jerusalem Committee,” and the one responsible for its executive branch, “Bayt Mal Al-Quds Al-Sharif Agency,” based in Rabat. At the top of its duties under the Basic Regulations: Saving Jerusalem, and preserving al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy sites, and their religious, civilizational, cultural and urban heritage.

On the Algerian side, however, the Palestinians may receive comparatively better treatment, not only concerning the perception of the Palestine issue, but also within the framework of managing the differences between Algeria and Morocco, including the Western Sahara issue. This Algerian behavior may lead to a slightly greater Moroccan involvement in supporting the Palestine issue, in the political and humanitarian fields, so as to prove Morocco’s commitment to this issue according to repeated royal assurances.

Recommendations

1. Communicating with various sides in Morocco, confronting the normalization movement, officially and popularly, exerting pressure to review the normalization decision, preventing the normalization trend to strengthen further within the governmental institutions, and not to give the Authority any justifications to withdraw its support for the Palestine issue.

2. Demanding the PJD-led government to take a decisive stance towards normalization.

3. Encouraging political, media, cultural and scientific activities and events, which highlight the risks of normalization and its negative effects on Moroccan society and its relations with the peoples of the region.

4. Showing the fact that normalization is inconsistent with the support of Palestine, actually, it is against the Palestine issue, whatever its forms are. It negatively affects the restoration of Palestinian rights and the resistance of the occupation, prolongs the life of this occupation, and delays the liberation of land and holy sites.


[1] Royal Activities: Statement by Royal Office, site of Maroc.ma, 10/12/2020, https://www.maroc.ma/en/royal-activities/statement-royal-office-48

[2] “President Donald J. Trump Has Brokered Peace Between Israel and the Kingdom of Morocco,” site of The White House, 11/12/2020, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-brokered-peace-israel-kingdom-morocco/

[3] Morocco Joins List of Arab Nations to Begin Normalizing Relations With Israel, The New York Times magazine, 10/12/2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/10/world/middleeast/israel-morocco-trump.html

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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