Deciphering the Israel-Morocco Normalization Deal
After the UAE, Bahrein and Sudan, U.S. President Donald Trump in his usual fashion announced on Twitter on the 10th of December another peace breakthrough: Israel and Morocco have agreed to normalize their relation. While the Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita has underlined that the relations between the two countries were “already normal”, to establish official diplomatic relations, direct air links and foster trade is massive. The positives of this move should not obscure the risks and consequences of this deal.
Firstly, Morocco always had a very close relationship with Israel because of its large influential Jewish community that represented over 10% of the total population of Morocco in the late 40’s. Today about one million Israelis have Moroccan roots.
The Sultan Mohamed V, the current king’s grandfather, protected the large Jewish population during World War II when the country was occupied by the pro-Nazi French Vichy government. He famously said: “There are no Jews in Morocco; There are only Moroccan subjects.”
His son, King Hassan ll, also had several key Jewish advisors and an excellent relation with Israel. It is believed that the Moroccan king possibly helped Israel win the 1967 Six-Day war by providing secret recordings of Arab leadership discussions in the run-up to the war.
Fast forward to today: King Mohamed VI obtaining the official U.S. recognition of Morocco's control over the Western Sahara is the clincher that made the Israel-Morocco normalization deal possible. That should not be a surprise since back in February, Israel was lobbying the U.S. to ink this exact same deal.
The tipping point was the very recent fallout between President Trump and Senator Jim Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the most avid supporter of the Western Sahara independence Party, the Polisario Front. The conflict over that disputed area that was under Spanish control, began in 1975 when Morocco took over from Spain. The Polisario Front resting on the unwavering support of Algeria next door battled against Morocco until a ceasefire was reached in1991. Over the years, the Polisario has gotten close to jihadist groups first to al-Qaeda and recently to Islamic State, with over 100 of its fighters joining ISIS in Syria. The current leader of the very powerful Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) is a former Polisario fighter, Abu Walid al-Sahrawi. ISGS is in particular responsible for the bloody attack that left four U.S. soldiers dead in Niger in 2017. But that’s not all, the Polisario has also extremely close links to both Hezbollah and Iran. Moroccan Foreign Minister confirmed that top Hezbollah officials, including Haidar Sobhi Habib, the chief of external operations, Ali Moussa Dakdouk, the military adviser and Haj Abou Wael Zalzali, the head of military training visited Polisario camps starting in March 2017 to coordinate training. Importantly, Hezbollah allegedly shipped SAM-9 & SAM-11 missiles to the Polisario. The operation was coordinated from the Iranian embassy in Algiers with the alleged active help of Algeria. Upon discovering this, the Moroccan Foreign Minister flew to Tehran to show Iran FM Zarif the proof of Hezbollah's nefarious involvement with the Polisario. Quite tellingly, Zarif didn’t deny the facts and because of the seriousness of Tehran’s actions, Rabat cut diplomatic relations with Iran. On all these issues linked to terrorism and Hezbollah/Iran, Israel could obviously bring valuable help.
After a relative calm over the past thirty years, tension was re-ignited last month in the Western Sahara when the Polisario blocked a U.N.-patrolled buffer strip at the Guerguerat zone and launched attacks against Moroccan soldiers. The big question is what Algeria will do. Will Algeria lead from behind and provide its usual support for independence or will it be more hands on? The peace deal and the American recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara is sparking fears in Algeria that Israeli forces would be allowed to operate along its frontier. In any case, a possible Algerian-Moroccan protracted conflict is not out of the question. That’s definitely one of the risks resulting from the U.S. move.
King Mohamed VI, is also taking risks by inking this deal because the Moroccan street is by and large pro-Palestinian; according to the Arab Index poll, 88% of Moroccans are opposed to peace with Israel. The government is led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Party, the PJD, that is still the most popular party in the country and has an extremely close relationship to its sister organization in Gaza, Hamas. In opposition to King Mohamed VI’s deal with Israel, the PJD confirmed its unwavering position against "the Zionist occupation and the crimes it perpetrates against the Palestinian people, in terms of murders..." Interestingly, the Muslim Brotherhood Moroccan Prime Minister El-Othmani retro-pedaled when he had to recognize on al-Jazeera that pragmatism is sometimes the answer and that states have to make difficult decisions, talking about the normalization with Israel.
Nonetheless, the base of the Muslim Brotherhood is extremely angered by the deal and while the King is solidly in power, he is sick and a rebellion could be in the offing. Could he be unseated? A small possibility, but the king is a descendant of the Prophet and is the Commander of the Faithful so he has a legitimacy that few leaders have in the Arab world.
To sum up the elements of this tripartite deal between the U.S., Israel and Morocco, Moroccan foreign minister Bourita told the MPs of the Muslim Brotherhood Party that Palestine is not the first priority of the kingdom but rather the Sahara is. He added: "Don't be more Palestinian than the Palestinian themselves!". King Mohamed VI’s religious stature also gives an important seal of approval to the peace deal with Israel. Finally, in a very positive sign, Jewish history and culture in Morocco will soon be part of the school curriculum, a first in the Arab world.