Morocco’s decision to normalise ties with Israel has handed Rabat its biggest step yet towards the prize it values most – global recognition of its claim to Western Sahara.
Washington’s support for Moroccan sovereignty over the desert territory represents the biggest policy concession the United States has made so far in its quest to win Arab recognition of Israel.
For King Mohammed VI, that has trumped any fears of angering Moroccans who back Palestinian rights or harming his image as “defender of the faithful” among conservative Muslims by making peace with an Israeli state that has annexed East Jerusalem.
In a news conference to announce the decision in a royal proclamation, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita warned that “those who criticise this deal are against Morocco’s sovereignty over Sahara”.
How far that admonition was necessary is uncertain.
“This news came as a shock to me and to the Moroccan people. We strongly reject it,” said Khalid Soufiani, a pro-Palestinian activist.
However, while Islamist and pan-Arab parties have opposed normalising ties with Israel, others including Berber rights activists have supported it.
“Restoring ties with Israel is good news that serves Morocco’s supreme interests,” said Munir Kejji, an activist for the Amazigh Berber people.
The deal comes at a key moment in the long-frozen conflict in Western Sahara between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front independence movement, which erupted again last month after three decades of truce.
The US move seems unlikely to lead other Western states – or the United Nations – to abandon their own longstanding position calling for a referendum to resolve the dispute. The UN said its stance was unchanged.
However, it adds momentum to a diplomatic campaign by Rabat that had already gathered steam this year and has so far led 17 African and Arab states to open consulates in Western Sahara.
Polisario vows to fight on
The Polisario, which pulled out of a 1991 ceasefire deal last month following a border incident involving its supporters and Moroccan troops, said its guerrilla struggle would continue.
Three decades on from that truce, Morocco’s military has grown its strength and technological capabilities with US help. It is currently negotiating the purchase of new drones with Washington.
Though the Polisario has announced constant bombardment of Moroccan frontier defences deep in the desert since quitting the truce, neither side has reported any deaths from fighting.
Peace with Israel may be a smaller step for Morocco than for some other Arab states.
Morocco is the ancestral home of nearly 1 million Israeli Jews and Bourita said 70,000 Israelis visited the kingdom last year alone. It opened a liaison office in Israel in 1994, but closed it in 2002 during the second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising.
Still, after rumours earlier this year that Morocco would agree a deal with Israel, Prime Minister Saad Dine El Otmani, head of the moderate Islamist PJD party, said Rabat rejected “any normalisation of ties with the Zionist entity”.
King Mohammed sought to sweeten the pill by saying in his proclamation that he still backs a two state solution and regards Jerusalem as a sacred city for three religions.
But in agreeing Thursday’s deal, he is betting that nationalist fervour over Western Sahara carries more weight than popular support for the Palestinian cause.