The pros and cons of Israel recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara

Adnan Abu Amer 

Middle East Monitor  /  July 28, 2023

Following the Israeli recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, Israeli voices are still raising more questions about the feasibility of this step, and whether it will be beneficial, or if it will be followed by greater harm, especially since such a step may face criticism on the international scene. This may be added to the criticisms the Occupation State is already facing regarding its behaviour in the Palestinian arena. While this step is consistent with Israel’s stances towards the Palestinians, it contradicts international resolutions issued by the UN and EU, which may raise many questions related to annexation and occupation.

The first Israeli benefit from this step is that it will gain broader control in Africa. There is also a great advantage for it in strengthening relations between Morocco and Israel, and in promoting its interests in broader contexts, as well. It can be assumed that it expects some major changes as a result of the step it took, given the importance of the Sahara to Morocco. At the top of the list of changes, it is the opening of permanent embassies in both countries, which is an important symbolic and diplomatic issue at a difficult period in Israel’s relations with the countries that normalized relations with it, due to the tensions in the Palestinian arena.

The second benefit is conducting visits and meetings at the highest political level, including King Mohammed VI, a step that Israel has expressed its desire for, several times. This is because the King’s last official meeting took place in July 1999 with then Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, during the funeral of King Hassan II, and he met shortly with the current King shortly after his coronation. This would make the prospective meeting with him, 25 years after the first meeting, an important political achievement for Israel.

The third benefit is to expand the infrastructure of their economic relations, sign an investment protection agreement and protect Israeli investors in Morocco, similar to the investment agreement signed with the UAE, as well as signing a free trade agreement.

As for the fourth benefit, it is represented by raising the level of multilateral relations, in the form of supporting Israel in international forums, such as the African Union and the UN. This also includes expanding the circle of normalization and receiving diplomatic assistance in its relations with sub-Saharan African countries, especially the western part of the continent, where Morocco enjoys great political influence and a large commercial and financial presence.

On the other side of these Israeli benefits, there are a number of challenges, the most important of which is that Morocco declares its long-term commitment to the Palestinian cause and towards Jerusalem, which limits the King’s ability to deepen relations with Israel. He is highly sensitive to Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as reflected in the condemnations issued by Morocco after the clashes taking place there, especially as King Mohammed VI chairs the OIC’s Jerusalem Committee.

At the same time, the development of Israeli-Moroccan relations may push the latter to gain a foothold in Al-Aqsa Mosque, and add a group of other interested actors to this already sensitive arena, which will aid the Occupation’s policy of extending its control in the West Bank, and the failure to achieve a solution to the Palestinian issue, factors making it difficult to announce the opening of an Israeli embassy in Rabat. This is in addition to increasing criticism of these relations, although the expected improvement in these relations does not negate the assumption that the majority of Moroccans are clearly hostile towards Israel.

It is worth noting that the Israeli step in recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara contradicts its traditional policy, which raises the question about Netanyahu’s real motives, especially the further improvement of their relations. It is based on three solid pillars: security, tourism and diplomacy. As for the security and military aspects, they are represented in the Israeli army’s announcement of the appointment of a military attaché in Rabat, as a necessary step in light of the close relations between the Israeli security agency and its Moroccan counterpart. Morocco is also considered an important customer of Israel’s military production, under the pretext of helping its forces in the desert.

This surprising Israeli step reveals an interest that is not hidden, as it is another pillar in strengthening their relations, which is the central role played by the army and the Mossad in hastening strong relations, leading to the possibility of opening an Israeli consulate in Rabat. This is especially as Netanyahu seeks to limit the effects of the political isolation experienced by his current government, and he wants to encourage foreign relations, as well as reinforce the idea that relations with Morocco are highly symbolic to the Israeli public because it is the home country of one of the largest and most influential Jewish communities.

Israeli diplomatic relations with Morocco today are in the “embassies” phase, and it is clear that the Israeli recognition of Moroccan sovereignty will raise the level of diplomatic relations between embassies, although there is a more important and serious issue surrounding the Israeli recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. This issue is the Iranian influence in that region and, according to many reports, Iran is arming Algeria through the Polisario Front in its quest for independence. There have also been reports of Iranian drone activity in the region.

It is clear that the Israeli move is targeting a front that is not calm, which makes the Western Sahara a new arena for conflict between Israel and Iran, adding to the continuation of this ongoing conflict in many parts of the world, whether in the Sahara, the Middle East, Europe or anywhere else. In this regard, Israeli circles claim that they no longer have the luxury of sitting idly by, in the face of such a threat.

As part of the global chess game between Israel and Iran, the Israeli recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara does not seem to add much credibility to it, especially at such a complex time, which raises more questions about this decision, given its unclear consequences. However, at the same time, it indicates that relations with Morocco are growing, after the renewal of normalized relations, establishing direct flights between Tel Aviv, Casablanca and Marrakech, with Morocco becoming a popular tourist destination for Israelis, the signing of many agreements between government ministries, academic institutions, companies and organizations and Morocco’s recent agreement to facilitate entry procedures for Israelis with an electronic visa.

The Israelis’ view the growing relations with Morocco as giving them a broader view of the developments taking place in the North African countries on the Mediterranean coast, the Sahel region and sub-Saharan Africa, which helps them obtain intelligence information and political contacts, increase monitoring of Algeria and monitor influence in Libya in order to make a breakthrough there.

Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science Department at the University of the Ummah in Gaza