The United States announced on Thursday that it had brokered a deal for Morocco to establish normal relations with Israel. The outgoing Trump administration is haling this as another foreign policy triumph. In fact, it is a mistake, one that will compound difficulties for Israel in gaining permanent acceptance and stability in the region.
By agreeing to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the territory of Western Sahara that it has occupied since 1975, the Trump administration has exceeded even its own standards of transactionalism. This recognition of one occupation in service of another is even more cynical than the normalization deals it brokered with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan.
None of these deals have addressed the issues that have prevented normalization in the past. Rather, it has been Washington’s bribery, cajoling, and pressure that have brought about normalization. While some may be satisfied with the outcome no matter how it was arrived at, the long-term costs are significant for Israel, the United States and, most of all, the Palestinians.
Both the UAE and Bahrain agreed to normalization with Israel with the expectation that it would give them access to much more sophisticated weaponry than they had been allowed to buy before. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, responding to the ire of his political rivals who had been kept in the dark about the negotiations, initially denied that he had consented to the sale of F-35 fighters and weaponized drones to the UAE, but eventually made it clear that he supported the sale, as did his main rival and partner, Benny Gantz.
In the case of Sudan, the United States’ designation of that country as a state sponsor of terrorism devastated its economy. So the Trump administration offered to remove it, in exchange for a cash payment to mollify some of the families of victims of the 9/11 attacks and Sudan’s agreement to normalize with Israel. Sudan is moving more cautiously and has asked Israel to help it push for legislation that would shield Sudan from future lawsuits.
This puts the United States in an awkward political position. We opened the door for 9/11 families to seek recompense from a country that, while it had harbored al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden in the mid-90s, had expelled them years before 9/11. Now we are telling them they can no longer pursue that avenue because that is the price of Sudan’s potential normalization with Israel. But if Sudan can still be sued, it makes no sense for its leaders to move forward with the deal that Trump brokered. At this point, it is unclear whether the deal will ever be consummated.
The price of normalization
So normalization with Israel has already meant that the quality of weaponry in the Persian Gulf region is going to take a giant leap. As Democratic Senator Chris Murphy stated while explaining why he introduced a bill to prevent the arms sale to the UAE, “Fueling an arms race in the Middle East is just bad policy — Iran will respond with its own ramp up, and every other Gulf nation will want similar weapons to keep up with the UAE.” Murphy’s bill was defeated and the sale is moving forward.
Normalization has also meant pressuring a desperate government with a collapsed economy that is struggling on the road from dictatorship to democracy. Sudan is also a country that has long shown strong solidarity with the Palestinian cause. But the U.S. exploited its weakened position to force it to make this controversial move at a time when the last thing its people need is an external issue to divide them. This is not going to endear either Israel or the United States to the people of Sudan, no matter what the government agrees to.
The agreement with Morocco combines the worst of both the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain and the agreement with Sudan. It also tramples on international law, and provides yet another example of the Trump administration paying far more than necessary for a meager gain.
While back channel communications between the UAE and Israel had been going on for years, Morocco and Israel already had a largely open and public connection. While the countries were formally unfriendly, Israel and Morocco’s King Hasan II, who ruled from 1961 to 1999, had a working relationship, and Israel was instrumental in maintaining the king’s rule. That relationship has continued under Morocco’s current King Mohammed VI. Morocco even established a “liaison office” in Israel after the Oslo Accords were signed, although it was closed after the outbreak of the Second Intifada.
The upgrade of relations between Morocco and Israel is, therefore, not of the same magnitude as the deals with other countries. Formal normalization is, of course, still very desirable for Israel and its supporters, but it surely could have come cheaper than the price the United States paid for it.
In exchange for the normalization agreement, the United States recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara region, the only Western country to do so. This is a major shift in U.S. policy. The George W. Bush administration favored Morocco’s autonomy plan, but Barack Obama reverted back to previous, long-held U.S. policy and backed relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions while also preventing the Security Council from pressuring Morocco to comply with those same resolutions. But none had ever come close to recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the region.
The similarities between Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara have been noted in the past, although there are also significant differences. But however similar they might be, Morocco’s already lukewarm relationship with Israel means that recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara was not necessary for normalization. Indeed, the Trump administration is already in talks to sell more advanced weaponry to Morocco, which was sufficient incentive for the UAE to make a much more risky leap in advancing normalization with Israel.
Planting seeds of conflict in the name of normalization
The message that Trump is sending to the region is a very dangerous one, for both the United States and Israel. These deals telegraph that human rights and national rights of Arab and Muslim people in the Middle East are of no consequence. For Israel’s sake, the United States will make conflict in the region more destructive and bloody. For Israel’s sake, the United States will hold hostage a country’s entire economy, and it will deny the rights to another people who, like the Palestinians, are trying to shed the yoke of decades of occupation.
It tells the world that if you want to get something from Washington, cozy up to the Israeli government and you will be much more likely to see your desires fulfilled. That is sure to increase popular hostility towards Israel around the world.
The United States will have shown that their hostility to the Palestinian cause will be applied to others, like the Sahrawi in the Western Sahara, struggling for freedom and justice.
And Israel will have demonstrated that normalization with it is a path for authoritarian governments to gain increased acceptance and that the Jewish state is willing to see such states armed with new weapons and empowered politically just to score political points.
That is not a long-term solution for peace.