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Has the normalisation train reached the end of the line in Morocco?

July 8, 2023 at 11:17 am

Flags of Israel and Morocco

In the past few days, two important positions were expressed that provide important information regarding the normalisation path between Morocco and Israel and the point it has reached.

The first position was issued by Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, who announced the postponement of the Negev Forum until political conditions develop. This was against the backdrop of the Israeli escalation and settlement policies. Bourita expressed during a press conference with his Swiss counterpart Ignacio Cassis in Rabat that the forum needs objective conditions to be met to achieve its objectives to support security and peace in the region. It is hoped to be organised at the beginning of the next season.

The second position was issued by Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who linked the decision to recognise Moroccan rule over the Sahara to holding the forum, conveying that Israel is working on this issue and will make its final decision at the Negev Forum.

These two positions reflect the normalisation train reaching the end of the line because Morocco refused to move forward on the path. After all, Israel failed to abide by a basic rule – recognising Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara. The agreement for normalisation was originally based on the idea of normalisation in return for recognising the Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara. Nearly three years have passed since the agreement, mediated by the US, and Israel still has not announced its position, while the US has recognised Moroccan rule over the Sahara.

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Around two years ago, the head of the Israeli liaison office in Rabat, David Govrin, specifically in October 2021, had previously played a trade-off game with Morocco when he linked the position on the Sahara with allowing the establishment of an Israeli embassy in Morocco. Govrin said that Morocco has not yet appointed an ambassador to Israel and expressed a position that provoked Rabat when he defended a fair agreement between Morocco and the Polisario Front regarding the Western Sahara conflict – without referring to Morocco’s policy on its Sahara.

It is a position that the Moroccans have not forgiven him for, as Rabat not only postponed the establishment of the Israeli embassy ​​but rather – based on confirmed information it received of the shameful behaviour of the head of the Israeli liaison office – submitted a complaint to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, due to accusations of sexual harassment in the Rabat liaison office and financial corruption. This prompted Tel Aviv to investigate, and he was acquitted a year later, resuming work in June 2023 to carry out his mission in Rabat until 2024. Israel then acknowledged the issue of the Israeli embassy in Rabat as a very advanced step and that Tel Aviv must present the positions needed to justify arriving at this point.

Since the agreement was made, Rabat’s policy has been based mainly on three basic principles: first, to benefit from it in strengthening its most technologically advanced military arsenal; the second, to limit normalisation with Israel to a minimum (airlines, tourism and agricultural investment) and the third is to rely on the principled position on the national issue (the Sahara) on the one hand, and the Palestinian issue on the other. This is to establish a balance between the maximum level of normalisation and its minimum and to curb any effort to accelerate the process without fulfilling its most important conditions.

This was not the first time Morocco postponed the Negev Forum, which was expected to be attended by the foreign ministers of the US, Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. It was postponed more than once without the reasons cited. However, the Moroccan foreign minister mentioned a reason relating to Israel’s policy, which does not encourage peace and stability in the region. According to its foreign minister, Rabat cannot proceed on a path that would legitimise Israeli policies of escalation and settlement and put Morocco in an awkward position because it previously announced that the agreement reached with Israel in Rabat could not be at the expense of legitimate Palestinian rights.

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Israel was supposed to show the utmost degree of self-restraint. It should go in two directions, first calming the situation in the region in a manner that encourages all Arab parties to hold the forum while, secondly, sticking to the agreement’s original rule – recognising Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara.

However, it seems that Tel Aviv has chosen the path of blackmail by linking the holding of the forum and announcing a final position on the Sahara issue without specifying its nature. Rabat is familiar with this game and therefore has not taken any bold steps towards advancing the normalisation process to guarantee the fulfilment of the process’ main point. It did not respond to the request to establish the Israeli embassy in Rabat, nor did it respond to the request to hold the Negev Forum, benefitting strategically from the agreement to strengthen its technologically advanced military arsenal.

In managing the situation, Moroccan intelligence prompted Israel to express how the normalisation train should run, without presenting any positions that consider the vital interests of the country with which it normalises. The position of the Israeli foreign minister, who linked the issue of normalisation to the desert, stipulates that the Negev Forum be held first and that the final position on the Sahara Desert be announced there, without specifying the nature of this position. He does not mention whether it supports Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara or if it will repeat what was expressed by the head of the Israeli liaison office when he said that Tel Aviv supports an agreement that is fair between Morocco and the Polisario Front, just as it failed to commit itself when the Rabat agreement was announced and would not express an explicit position on Moroccan rule over the Sahara.

Reading into the Moroccan position since the announcement of the agreement with Israel shows that Rabat will not engage in holding a forum in exchange for waiting for a final Israeli position on the Sahara. It previously vetoed the establishment of an Israeli embassy in Rabat, and Moroccan Foreign Minister Bourita noted that Morocco had opened an Israeli office in the past to connect with Rabat, but it closed, meaning that the issue of agreeing with Israel is not guaranteed. It is subject to reversal, especially if Morocco’s vital interests are not considered, including, in particular, the position on the Moroccan Sahara.

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Translated from Arabi21, 7 July, 2023.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.