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Will Israel recognize Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara?

Visiting Rabat officially for the first time, Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering recognizing the kingdom’s sovereignty over the disputed region.
Parliament Speaker Rachid Talbi Alami (R) shows Israel's Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana the parliament building in Rabat, Morocco, June 8, 2023.

On an official visit to Rabat, Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana called on Thursday on the government to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, in what could indicate a possible shift in Israel’s policy on the issue. Experts, however, warn that the issue is complicated and it may backfire on Israeli wider interests. 

Morocco has laid claim to the Western Sahara since 1975, and a 1991 cease-fire agreement saw Rabat claim 80% of the contested region, with the rest being held by the Polisario Front, the Algeria-backed Western Sahara pro-independence movement. Algeria opposes its neighbor laying claim to it and has supported the region's independence from Morocco.

Ohana’s remarks, widely cited in the Moroccan press, came one day only after Reuters reported that the Israeli government was considering recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed region of Western Sahara. 

“I understand the importance of the recognition of the Western Sahara. Israel should move toward that goal of recognizing the Moroccan Sahara just as our closest ally the US did as it signed the historic Abraham Accords,” said Ohana. “There are currently serious discussions between our governments on that matter, and I believe Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu will be announcing his decision in the near future.”

The report cited an unnamed source in the Israeli Cabinet saying a shift in policy was currently under discussion in the National Security Council.

The Reuters report was published as Israel’s national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi was visiting Morocco. Hanegbi met on Wednesday with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita and with other Moroccan top security officials. A statement issued by Netanyahu's office said the two sides discussed strengthening cooperation in foreign affairs and defense.

Morocco has been advocating for years on the international arena for the world to recognize its sovereignty over the Western Sahara region, and against recognizing the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) established by the separatist Polisario Front movement. In 1984, the SADR was accepted already as a member of the Organization of African Unity, later transformed into the current African Union (AU). At the time, Morocco withdrew from the group over that move, rejoining the AU in 2017. Several countries hold contacts at different levels with SADR.

Over the years prior to normalizing ties, Israel had not recognized officially the SDAR, but had also not recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the region. In 2017, while on a visit to Ecuador, then-Communications Minister Ayoub Kara met SADR Prime Minister Abdelkader Taleb Omar. Morocco, sending a message via an Israeli Embassy in Europe, protested the meeting. Still, Israeli officials made clear at the time that the meeting was a mishap on Kara’s side and did not reflect Israel’s policy on the issue. 

Israel and Morocco reestablished ties in December 2020, as part of the US-mediated Abraham Accords normalizing Israel’s ties with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and the Kingdom of Morocco. For Morocco to agree to normalize ties with Israel, the Trump administration proclaimed its recognition of the kingdom’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara region. 

The US-brokered normalization deal did not include an Israeli change of policy on the Western Sahara. Nevertheless, the American recognition ignited rage in neighboring Polisario-supporting Algeria against both Morocco and Israel. On August 2021, Algiers announced it was severing ties with Rabat over the recognition, partly blaming Israel, and also blaming Morocco for allegedly abandoning the Palestinian cause.

A first sign of a possible shift in Israel’s policy was registered on March 2022, when then-Foreign Minister Yair Lapid convened the Negev Forum, hosting the foreign ministers of the United States, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. After his meeting with Bourita on the sidelines of the Negev summit, Lapid issued a statement saying that the participating countries would work together to counter "attempts to weaken Moroccan sovereignty and territorial integrity." 

He also hailed a decision by Spain to support Morocco's autonomy plan for the Western Sahara region.

On June 2022, then-Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked expressed Israel’s alleged support of Moroccan sovereignty. A statement issued by Shaked’s office said that on her visit to the kingdom, the minister “publicly expressed for the first time Israel’s support of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara.” Still, the Israeli press estimated at the time that Shaked was not fully aware of Israel’s official stance on the issue. According to The Times of Israel, her statement was not coordinated with the Foreign Ministry. 

For Israel, however, the dilemma is that such recognition could hurt its interests in the African continent. 

Irit Back heads the African Studies department at the Tel Aviv University. She tells Al-Monitor that such a move, of Israel recognizing Moroccan sovereignty, could actually backfire diplomatically, causing more damage than good to Israeli foreign policy. 

‘’Recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara would distance Israel from the African Union. We were accepted to this organization as observer in 2021, but since then, our status has been put on hold," she said.

"Israeli diplomacy is now battling to preserve this status, which is important to us on the international arena and in our dealings with the African continent. We should not take steps that could harm this diplomatic campaign,’’ the expert added. 

Israel has full or partial diplomatic relations with 45 out of 54 African countries, including Muslim countries such as Chad, Sudan and Senegal. Reinforcing diplomatic, security, economic and tourism ties with the African continent has been a priority for several consecutive Israeli governments. Israel is leading development-aid projects across Africa, especially in the domains of smart agriculture, battling the expansion of deserts and water management. As such, Israeli diplomats feel that the time is ripe for Israel to deepen its engagement with the African Union. 

That being said, last February, Head of the Africa division at the Israeli Foreign Ministry Sharon Bar-Li was expelled from the meeting of the African Union in Addis Abeba, in a clear sign that backlash on Western Sahara could come in the form of more hostility toward Israel. 

‘’If Israel adopts such a stance, it will only encourage African Union members such as Algeria, to adopt more extreme views against us," noted Back.

"Algeria has already pointed the finger at Israel on that. South Africa considers Israel as an occupying country. These two countries are dominant in objections within the African Union for Israel to enjoy an observer role," Back argued. 

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