GP Insights # 449, 13 December 2020
On 10 December, the US President announced that Morocco and Israel had agreed to establish diplomatic relations. As a part of the deal, the US will now recognize Morocco's sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara which is disputed between Morocco and Algeria-backed Polisario Front. Trump termed the agreement a "historic breakthrough." He added: "Morocco recognized the United States in 1777. It is thus fitting we recognize their sovereignty over Western Sahara."
On the same day, the Polisario Front condemned the move, calling it a blatant violation of the UN resolutions. The European representative of the Polisario Front said, "This will not change an inch of the reality of the conflict and the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination."
Further, the UN, also critical of the move, clarified that their position on Western Sahara remains unchanged. According to the UN Secretary-General's spokesperson, he believed "the solution to the question can still be found based on Security Council resolutions." Similarly, various Palestinian groups also disapproved the developments. However, the King of Morocco said that he stands by the two-state solution and sees the negotiations with Israel the only way to achieve a peaceful solution to the Palestinian conflict.
What is the background?
First, Morocco becomes the fourth Arab country to recognize Israel in 2020. The UAE became the first Arab country in 2020 to normalize relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords. Following this, Bahrain established ties with Israel in September, and Sudan followed suit in October. The recognition of Israel by the four countries marked a new era in the Arab-Israel peace deal. Previously, Egypt was the first country to sign a deal with Israel in 1979, followed by Jordan in 1994.
Second, the US pressure on Arab countries. The series of normalization indicates that there is pressure from the US. For example, the US approved an arms sale to the UAE after the country signed the Abraham Accords. Similarly, in October, the US announced that it had removed Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Immediately, it announced that Sudan had agreed to establish ties with Israel.
Third, the regional fallout of the Polisario conflict. The conflict began after Spain pulled out of the region in 1975, leaving Mauritania, Morocco and the Polisario Front to decide their respective regional sovereignty. The Polisario Front represented the Sahrawi ethnic group under the banner of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic from exile in Algeria. In 1979, it established ties with Mauritania but continued fighting with Morocco until 1991. In the same year, an agreement to hold a referendum, monitored by the UN, was signed. However, Morocco has stalled the process to date.
What does it mean?
First, the decision to recognize Western Sahara as a part of Morocco could have regional repercussions. In November 2020, the Polisario Front and Morocco engaged in violence for two weeks. A ceasefire was signed to end the clashes. However, Trump's announcement could reignite the tensions, leading to the involvement of Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front. Therefore, while the deal helps Israel build relations with the Arab countries, Morocco is likely to face a conflict within its neighbourhood.
Second, Trump has adopted a transactional method of brokering deals between Israel and Arab countries. Though President-elect Biden is likely to continue diplomatic efforts to help Israel, he may not offer diplomatic favours to pressurize countries into recognizing Israel. If so, countries which are expecting a benefit through the Abraham Accords may put their decision on hold for a while. This would slow down the pace of the current Arab-Israel normalization. However, Abraham Accords will remain a part of Trump's legacy in the Middle East.