Donald Trump said Morocco and Israel had agreed to “full diplomatic relations” on Thursday, the fourth such deal in the region brokered by the White House.
“Another HISTORIC breakthrough today!”, the US president wrote on Twitter. “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!”
In a sign of Mr Trump’s continued willingness to strike transactional deals, the US also agreed to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, a disputed territory, in a break from international norms.
Mr Trump’s administration previously announced similar deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, a significant shift in regional relations between Israel and Arab states that threatens to leave the Palestinians with dwindling support.
Top Trump aides Jared Kushner and secretary of state Mike Pompeo have also been putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to normalise ties, but the Gulf kingdom has expressed caution.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, welcomed the Israel-Morocco announcement as “another great light of peace”, saying there would be direct flights between the countries and the opening of diplomatic missions, according to Reuters.
Mr Kushner said Morocco was a “tolerant society” whose leaders had been good to Jewish people in the past, but that “for whatever reason, diplomatic relations did not exist” until now.
Morocco has controlled most of Western Sahara, a disputed desert territory, since 1975 when Spain, the occupying power pulled out its forces. Since then the Polisario Front, an Algeria-backed movement, has been seeking independence for the territory. The UN has been trying to organise a referendum on self-determination, which has been stalled for decades.
US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory will strengthen Morocco’s position. Polisario announced last month that it was abandoning a ceasefire that ended 16 years of fighting with Morocco in 1991.
Mr Trump took the decision to recognise Western Sahara as Moroccan territory because of strong trading and intelligence ties between the US and Morocco, and because there had been “no progress on a resolution” on the issue, said Mr Kushner.
“This is something that’s been talked about for a long time but it’s something that seems inevitable at this point, it’s something that we think advances the region and helps bring more clarity to where things are going,” Mr Kushner told reporters.
But Robert Malley, former senior Obama official, said the terms of the deal would strike many as “unseemly”. “It is the height of transactional diplomacy, in which an issue as important as relations with Israel is being used as a bargaining chip in pursuit of wholly unrelated goals,” he said, adding it was unclear how the Polisario and Algeria would react.
“As one of the persistent faultlines in regional integration and co-operation, the United States is trampling over African equities for a short-term win for its Israel policy,” said Judd Devermont, who was national intelligence officer for Africa during the Obama administration.
Mr Devermont, now Africa director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the decision to recognise Western Sahara would “pose an immediate problem for many African countries” and the African Union, the continent-wide body that also recognises SADR. Both Morocco and SADR are members of the African Union. “The US decision will increase pressure on the region’s member states to choose sides, and it presumably will spur a strong rebuke from AU leadership,” he said.
Morocco has long had informal ties with Israel, and the kingdom has a small Jewish community that it takes pride in protecting. André Azoulay, a Moroccan Jew, is a long-serving adviser to King Mohammed VI and to his father King Hassan II before him.