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Morocco to normalize ties with Israel in deal with Trump over Western Sahara

Morocco has agreed to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, President Trump announced on Thursday. The Moroccan decision comes as part of a deal that includes U.S. recognition of the disputed territory of Western Sahara as part of Morocco.

Why it matters: Morocco is the fourth Arab country to move toward normalization with Israel in the last four months as part of the Trump administration's "Abraham Accords" initiative. But the deal also involves a change in longstanding U.S. policy with just six weeks left in Trump's term.

Behind the scenes: The negotiations around this deal started two years ago but intensified in the last few months. Trump's senior adviser Jared Kushner and special envoy Avi Berkowitz negotiated directly with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita.

  • The Israeli government encouraged the White House several times in the last three years to pursue this track, but the talks over the last few months involved only the U.S. and Morocco.
  • The White House briefed the Israeli government in recent weeks about a possible breakthrough.

The other side: While the normalization deal is a breakthrough for Israeland a significant achievement for Trump, recognition of Western Sahara as part of Morocco is a big shift in U.S. policy — and a major diplomatic achievement for Morocco.

  • Western Sahara is a sparsely populated, disputed territory that borders Morocco on the northwest corner of Africa.
  • It was formerly controlled by Spain and is now claimed by Morocco despite international opposition and fierce resistance from the indigenous population.
  • State of play: A violent insurgency ended in 1991 after 16 years, but the matter remains unresolved. Several weeks ago, fighting erupted again between the Moroccan army and Sahrawi rebels.

What’s next: The U.S. is now the only Western country to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. President-elect Biden will have to decide whether to reverse Trump's decision after taking office in January.

  • Such a move would not be easy for Biden to make, because it could cause the Morocco-Israeli normalization process to collapse.

Flashback: Israel and Morocco have had a secret relationship dating back to the 1960’s through their respective intelligence services.

  • In the late 1970’s, Morocco mediated between Israel and Egypt to help them move towards the historic peace deal.
  • In the 1990’s, after the Oslo Accords, Israel and Morocco established diplomatic relations and opened diplomatic missions in Tel Aviv and Rabat.
  • In 1994, Israeli prime minister Itzhak Rabin and foreign minister Shimon Peres visited Morocco as the guests of the late King Hassan II.
  • But in 2000, after the second Intifada, Morocco cut off relations with Israel and both countries shut down their diplomatic offices.

In the 20 years since, then have been several secret meetings between Israeli officials and Moroccan foreign ministers.

  • In September 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met secretly with Bourita, the Moroccan foreign minister, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

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