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Morocco Joins List of Arab Nations to Begin Normalizing Relations With Israel

WASHINGTON — Morocco has agreed to a rapprochement with Israel in return for American recognition of the kingdom’s sovereignty over a long-disputed territory, under a deal announced on Thursday that gives President Trump another diplomatic victory in his final weeks in office.

With the agreement, which has been under discussion since 2017, Morocco becomes the fourth Muslim-majority state to pledge warmer official relations with Israel this fall under accords brokered by the Trump administration.

It undercuts an independence movement in the Western Sahara region, which has rejected Morocco’s claims of sovereignty, with United Nations support, and could fuel instability in that yearslong dispute.

The Moroccan government downplayed the announcement from Washington that the move amounted to a full or new normalization with Israel, noting years of ongoing if opaque relations. Moroccan officials also conspicuously committed only to reopening so-called liaison offices with Israel — not embassies or consulates — pledging vaguely to “resume diplomatic relations as soon as possible.”

Mr. Trump announced Morocco’s inclusion in the Abraham accords that his administration has fostered, declaring it on Twitter as “a massive breakthrough” for Middle East peace. Morocco joins Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates in agreeing to set aside generations of hostilities toward Israel over the Palestinian conflict as part of a campaign to stabilize the Middle East and North Africa.

Briefing reporters in Washington, Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law, said the agreement called for Morocco to open full diplomatic relations and formalize economic ties with Israel. It will also allow overflights of its air space and direct commercial flights to Moroccan airports from Tel Aviv, Mr. Kushner said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel celebrated the announcement at a prearranged, televised Hanukkah lighting ceremony in Jerusalem, accompanied by David M. Friedman, the American ambassador to Israel.

“There have been strong ties between Morocco and the Jewish people throughout the entire modern era,” Mr. Netanyahu said. He predicted “a very warm peace,” given that Israel and Morocco have maintained some ties for more than half a century.

Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu have made the accords — normalized relations between Israel and Muslim states that long have been aligned with the cause of the Palestinians — a focus of their respective campaigns to hold onto power.

Mr. Trump lost the November election to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., and Mr. Netanyahu is potentially facing a new round of elections in Israel amid a paralyzed government there.

Thursday’s agreement also hands Morocco’s monarch, King Mohammed VI, a long-demanded prize: American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara territory.

Recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara is an unusual move from the United States, and comes at a critical time for the region.

After years of war, the U.N. brokered a cease-fire in 1991 that called for a referendum on independence for Western Sahara. Blocked by Morocco, that referendum has still not been held.

Last month, after Morocco launched a military operation in a buffer strip patrolled by U.N. peacekeepers, the Western Sahara’s pro-independence Polisario Front declared war and threatened a full-blown military conflict.

“It’s something that can pretty dramatically escalate, and Trump has just lit it on fire,” said Hannah Armstrong, an independent analyst who has worked on the Maghreb and Sahel regions for over a decade.

Mr. Kushner suggested that recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over an area where it mostly already maintains administrative control could “possibly break the logjam.”

“This is an issue that’s been out there for a long time, and quite frankly, there’s just been no progress on a resolution,” he said. As part of the recognition agreement, the United States diplomatic mission to Morocco will open a consulate in Dakhla, a city in Western Sahara.

It will be difficult for Mr. Biden’s incoming administration to return to a role as an impartial actor committed to resolving the dispute. A spokesman for Mr. Biden’s transition team declined to comment on Thursday.

In a rebuke to the Trump administration from a fellow Republican, Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the “rights of the Western Saharan people have been traded away.”

The deal came together with the help of a Moroccan investor, Yariv Elbaz, who does business in Israel, and acted as a go-between for Washington and Rabat. In talks dating to 2017, officials discussed the promise of American recognition of Western Sahara as a condition of warming ties with Israel.

But the Moroccan king was deeply hesitant to jeopardize his standing in the Arab world, according to two Moroccan officials briefed on those efforts who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss them.

Mr. Elbaz later informed the Moroccan government that the Trump administration was willing to help facilitate as much as $3 billion in investments, much of that earmarked for Moroccan banks, hotels and a renewable energy company owned by the king, the officials said. The effort was to be coordinated by the United States International Development Finance Corporation.

A senior Trump administration official confirmed on Thursday that the development office was considering investments worth up to $3 billion in Morocco over three years, but said they were not linked to the reconciliation with Israel.

Morocco’s government now finds itself in the same uncomfortable position of having to explain its warming relations with Israel — at the cost of longtime sympathy for Palestinians — as other nations that have signed onto the Abraham accords.

“The move shows that #Morocco’s regime is willing to sell its soul to maintain its illegal occupation of parts of #WesternSahara,” Sidi Omar, the Polisario Front’s representative at the United Nations, wrote on Twitter.

Mohamed Daadaoui, a Moroccan academic, noted that Morocco and Israel already had economic, military and cultural ties. “Not sure this is the best decision #Morocco should make right now domestically,” he wrote on Twitter.

As the deal was being announced in Washington, King Mohammed VI called Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader. Nasser Bourita, the Moroccan foreign minister, said the king affirmed his commitment “to the Palestinian cause, which remains unchanged.”

Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian leader and politician, denounced Mr. Trump’s administration as “scrambling to do anything it can to extract concessions and benefits for Israel.”

“There is something extremely immoral in the way they are exploiting countries’ needs and demands,” she said.

More than one million Israelis are of Moroccan descent, Mr. Kushner said, most of whom arrived in the 1950s. Many Israelis have visited Morocco in recent years, traveling via third countries but entering on Israeli passports.

Today, Morocco has a Jewish population of about 4,000, said Samuel L. Kaplan, the U.S. ambassador to Rabat from 2009 to 2013. That is down from more than 200,000 Jews who lived in Morocco when Israel was established in 1948 but who then began responding to calls to immigrate to Israel.

The two countries have long had intelligence ties, including a shared operation in 1995 to recruit Osama bin Laden’s Moroccan secretary to gather information and ultimately assassinate him. Israel has in the past also lobbied the United States to provide Morocco with military equipment.

Liaison offices between Israel and Morocco were established in 1994 after the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements known as the Oslo Accords, but they closed after the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 2000. They will be reopened as part of Thursday’s agreement, Mr. Bourita said.

If the two countries ultimately open embassies, Israel’s new agreement with Morocco would be similar to the accords that the Trump administration helped broker with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in September.

By contrast, Sudan has stopped short of declaring full and normalized relations with Israel and recently threatened to withdraw from the agreement if Congress does not give it immunity from terrorism lawsuits that families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks want to bring against the country for harboring Mr. bin Laden years before the attacks.

The Trump administration had long hoped Saudi Arabia would join the push for normalizing relations with Israel. So far, the Saudis have insisted that more progress must come first on peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

But Thursday’s announcement could help smooth the way, given the close relations between Morocco and Saudi Arabia and the special bond between the royal houses of those two countries.

Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the deal “will make it easier for Saudi Arabia to take the step when it is ready to do so.”

Lara Jakes reported from Washington, Isabel Kershner and David M. Halbfinger from Jerusalem, and Aida Alami from Rabat, Morocco. Ruth Maclean contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal, and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv.

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