Israel has a diplomatic liaison office in Rabat, but not a full-fledged embassy. Since March, Morocco has postponed convening the second Negev summit — the meeting of four Arab countries that recognize the Jewish State within the framework of the Abraham Accords — and postponed it again in late June. Bilateral relations, which resumed in December 2020 aided by former U.S. president Donald Trump during his last months in the White House, have advanced briskly in terms of security and defense, economy and trade, tourism and culture. But the government in Rabat is still waiting for the Israeli executive to take the decisive step of recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony and a disputed territory where the Polisario Front proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in 1976.
The disagreement between allies has prevented raising the level of the Israeli representation in Rabat, as Israel wishes to do. It has also blocked a second Negev summit, so named after the southern Israeli desert where the first gathering was held in 2022, and considered Israel’s main political asset to break its isolation with the Arab countries. Until now, the debate had remained obscured behind diffuse diplomatic language and conditioned by the periodic outbreaks of violence between Israeli troops and Palestinian armed groups, such as the one recently recorded in Jenin. Finally, the head of Israeli diplomacy, Eli Cohen, put the cards on the table: Israel will recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara when Morocco once and for all convenes the Negev summit.
“Right now we are working on this matter and our plan is to have a final decision at the Negev Forum. We are working on our position and I think the final decision will be in September,” said the minister of foreign affairs on July 3rd at a meeting with the foreign press in Jerusalem. Rabat is hoping that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu will make official its position on Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory by opening a consulate in Laâyoune or Dakhla, two enclaves located within Western Sahara. The Joe Biden administration has not questioned the recognition of sovereignty granted by his predecessor without the need to establish a diplomatic representation in Western Sahara, as 28 other states have already done, while Washington has continued to promote a normalization of relations between the Jewish State and the Arab countries.
The Negev Forum was born hand in hand with the so-called Government of Change in Israel and the foreign minister at the time, the centrist leader Yair Lapid, who crafted a broad coalition backed by an Israeli Arab party. But that administration has been replaced with the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, with Prime Minister Netanyahu propped up by the anti-Arab far-right and the main party of Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
The usually temperate Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have condemned the Israeli military operation in Jenin and called for a return to dialogue with the Palestinians to prevent further escalation. Morocco has gone even further by asking the international community to intervene to “cease the aggression suffered by that people [the Palestinians] and their territory,” said Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs Naser Burita, the day after his Israeli counterpart had defined the diplomatic parameters for the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Burita reiterated Rabat’s condemnation of “the multiple Israeli aggressions in Jenin.”
With the conflict flaring up again in the Holy Land, Morocco has had to perform a balancing act to maintain the strategic alliance with Israel while consolidating its traditional Arab support for the Palestinian cause in Jerusalem, which King Mohammed VI leads within the Organization of Islamic Cooperation at the helm of the Al Quds Committee.
“Public opinion in the Arab world may be silent, but it is following developments closely. The latest postponement of the Negev summit should not come as a surprise, and there may be a fourth if violence persists in the West Bank and the Israeli government approves new settlement construction,” wrote Jamal Amiar, a Moroccan journalist and writer, in an opinion column in The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. In recent weeks, Israel has deployed a diplomatic offensive in Morocco to strengthen the rapprochement, but the political will has not yet been translated into a formal statement.
Military and trade advantages
The strategic alliance with Israel has provided Morocco with military advantages, such as the acquisition of latest-generation drones and missiles and access to intelligence that have altered the balance of forces vis-à-vis the Polisario Front and Algeria, which fully supports the Western Sahara independence movement. The technological advantage of the Moroccan Army compared to the Algerian superiority in troops and ground weapons has been confirmed by the United Nations through MINURSO, the United National mission deployed since 1991 in Western Sahara. Bilateral trade has skyrocketed between the new allies, with an increase of 32% in 2022 in favor of Israel, which sent more than 200,000 tourists to Morocco. More than 700,000 Israelis, about 8% of the population, are Jews of Moroccan descent.
Moroccan society has also changed with the rapprochement. A few years ago there were thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators in the streets of Moroccan cities. Now, only a few dozen typically gather outside the Parliament building in Rabat to protest against Israeli military incursions in Palestinian territories. And 31% of the population declares itself in favor of normalizing relations, according to a survey by Arab Barometer. Soccer, however, has shown that Moroccan-Palestinian ties remain emotional. At the World Cup in Qatar, where Morocco managed to reach the semifinals last December, the Palestinian flag was proudly displayed by the Atlas Lions after each victory in the official photos, to the unanimous applause of fans across the Islamic world.
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