Morocco Recognizes Israel: Dying Hope of Self-Determination in West Sahara

Author Name: Ghanwah Ijaz      10 Feb 2021     Global view

On December 10, 2020, the United States successfully brokered normalization of ties between Morocco and Israel. This makes Morocco, the oldest Arab monarchies, the sixth state in the MENA region to establish formal ties with Israel (following Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, UAE, and Sudan). According to the agreement, the two states will resume partial diplomatic ties, establish direct flights, and promote economic and technological cooperation. While Morocco will open liaison offices in Israel, the US has promised arms sale worth 1 billion USD to the country.

In a presidential proclamation, the United States acknowledged “Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara territory” disregarding the fact that the region is an internationally recognized disputed area between Morocco and the Polisario Front – representative of the Saharawi freedom movement. The US’ unilateral recognition of the Moroccan claim challenges international obligations, and draws attention to some pertinent questions:

Where does the United Nations Security Council Resolution 690 (to hold a referendum in West Sahara) now stand?

Why has the United Nations become habitual at deserting referendums/calls for plebiscites in Palestine, Occupied Jammu & Kashmir, and now in Western Sahara?

Why has the international community become a silent spectator of America’s unilateral decisions on disputed territories?

Why have exclusive verdicts instead of unanimous solutions become the new ‘global geostrategic norm’?

Western Sahara, a gateway to West Africa, is enriched with natural resources, and is a disputed territory between Morocco and the Sahrawis population. For a long time, the Kingdom of Morocco has attempted to legitimize its de facto control over the area, but in vain. The conflict between the monarchy and the Polisario front first erupted in 1975, when Morocco annexed West Sahara after the Spanish colonial regime pulled out. The annexation was opposed and resisted by the Sahrawis population and Polisario Front, but was soon outgunned.

Over 10,000 people were killed, and 200,000 individuals displaced until the UN brokered a ceasefire deal in 1991, promising a referendum in West Sahara, which Morocco opposes. To date, the government controls two-thirds of the territory and Polisario holds the remaining one-third.

Trump’s concession is a diplomatic win for Morocco. Normalizing relations with Israel would have been a risky move – domestically for Rabat, as it could have generated opposition and popular anger. Nonetheless, doing so in the context of Western Sahara makes that popular anger a lot less likely. Although, US recognition of Morocco’s claim does not necessarily translate into international recognition, it does bolster its claim and international standing, apart from solidifying its relations with particular states.

For the outgoing US President, the agreement between Israel and Morocco is a positive-sum game for all parties involved. But several analysts consider Trump’s decision as gratuitous grandstanding, and blame him and his cabal of shunning the legitimate concerns of the Sahrawi people. According to Jim Inhofe, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (and a Republican), President Trump “could have made the deal without trading the right of voiceless people.”

For almost five decades, the Sahrawi people have failed to provoke world consciousness - enlisted into the category of “world’s forgotten freedom struggles.” Morocco’s treatment of Sahrawis in many ways replicates Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, and India’s treatment of people of Occupied Jammu and Kashmir - changing demography of a disputed area by convincing thousands of non-residents to move to Western Sahara at the cost of its indigenous population.

In making this rash decision, Mr. Trump consulted neither the Polisario Front—which has long represented the Sahrawis—nor Algeria and Mauritania, the concerned neighboring countries. Meanwhile, this historic breakthrough has faced criticism from some European Union members, whereas, Iran, Algeria, and Mauritius have disapproved of Morocco’s decision labeling it as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. On the flip side, the UN’s position on Western Sahara remains “unchanged” (pushing all stakeholders to respect UNSC Resolution 690).

The UN is considered to be the voice of the voiceless entities in the international arena. But today, this international agency’s formerly established resolutions are deliberately being abandoned by its own members. The international community’s “might is right” approach has intensified the fear of invasion or intrusion in the states adjacent to belligerent and aggressive neighbors.

The UN must not walk away from one of its core principles – support of peoples’ right to self-determination. In fact, it can be a blessing in disguise if the UN determines to make states accountable for violating unanimously agreed-upon international obligations to revitalize its dying spirit.

Polisario hopes that President-elect Joe Biden will withdraw from this deal, but if he does not, it may lead to more social unrest in the area as well as restarting a war that ended decades ago.

Would President-elect Biden assert or reverse the decision? Only time will tell.

However, there can be no doubt that long-lasting peace can only be restored in the area once all stakeholders are on board, and for this purpose, the international community must work together to ease tensions and consider the will of the people of Western Sahara. Who knows, if dealt with in a sincere, transparent and inclusive way, it could become an example for dispute resolution in other cases of foreign occupation against the will of the people.

Ghanwah Ijaz is researcher at Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS).  The article was first published in modern diplomacy. She can be reached at cassthinkers@gmail.com.