Trump’s Israel-Morocco Deal Leaves Biden With Another Mess

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Even by the standards of the Trump administration, the trilateral arrangement between the U.S., Israel and Morocco over the disputed Western Sahara was a crude quid pro quo. The president made no effort to hide the artlessness of the deal when he declared on Thursday that the U.S. would recognize Morocco’s long-contested claim to the minerals-rich region.

Why was he departing from the established American position and the decades-old international consensus, which requires the Saharawi people to decide their future? Trump’s specious justification was that the deal was recompense for Rabat’s recognition of the U.S. in 1777, and that it would bring “peace and prosperity” to the region. But he’d already given away the real reason in announcing the kingdom had agreed to diplomatic relations with Israel.

Like so many of Trump’s foreign-policy decisions, the U.S. loses much more than it gains from the bargain. And the tawdriness of it taints the winners.

At first glance, Morocco seems to have made the biggest gains. It gets American endorsement for its territorial claims in exchange for something rather less than what Trump has claimed to be “full diplomatic relations” with Israel: King Mohammed VI has agreed to an exchange of liaison offices, not embassies or consulates. The last time Morocco and Israel traded such representations, in 1994, it lasted just six years.

But the king must know that American recognition of a country’s claims is not the carte blanche it used to be — and that Trump has done more to devalue the currency than any other previous occupant of the White House. It is highly unlikely that another world power will join the U.S. in its endorsement. The United Nations has already announced its position on Western Sahara is “unchanged.”

Plus, in a matter of weeks, Morocco will find that the U.S. position has changed. If it is politically awkward for President-elect Joe Biden to immediately overturn Trump’s decision, he will certainly not embrace it with any enthusiasm. Morocco can’t rely on American diplomatic support, in the UN or elsewhere, beyond Jan. 20.

The UN maintains a peacekeeping force in the territory and has been pursuing a settlement plan meant to eventually allow the people of Western Sahara to choose between independence and integration with Morocco.

Morocco’s problems in Western Sahara will not go away. Fighting with the independence-seeking Polisario Front, which recently resumed after a three-decade cease-fire, will undoubtedly intensify. And although the Moroccan military will be reinforced by American arms and Israeli knowhow, a decisive victory is unlikely. 

The deal will yield an economic dividend, of course, starting with a flood of Israelis to Marrakesh, Fes and other tourist destinations. Investors will follow, and Moroccan businesses, struggling in a debilitated economy, will appreciate access to Israeli cash as well as their technology.

For Israel, in the spectrum of its recent normalization agreements with Arab states, this one is closer to the deal with the United Arab Emirates, in that it offers material gains, than it is to the one with Sudan, which was mostly symbolic. Although Israel has had unofficial relations with Morocco for years, especially in intelligence-sharing, open access to a sizeable market will be very welcome.

There will also be an infusion of political capital for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a time of need. His governing coalition is tottering, and yet another general election looms. His diplomatic breakthroughs with Arab nations will undoubtedly dominate his campaign messaging.

Trump himself will use the Morocco-Israel opening to embellish his legacy as the president who cut the Gordian Knot of the Middle East. His son-in-law and special envoy to the region, Jared Kushner, can be expected to step up his efforts to get other Arab nations to join the club in the final weeks of the Trump presidency.

But the biggest prize, a Saudi-Israeli normalization agreement, will likely evade them. Riyadh, as I have explained, has its own timetable.

The biggest losers in the deal are the parties who had no say in its making: first and foremost, the people of Western Sahara. This is yet another blow to their aspirations for nationhood, which have been frozen since the departure of Spain in 1975 and the joint Moroccan-Mauritanian invasion soon thereafter.

Although there was never any prospect of the U.S. openly advocating on their behalf — a succession of presidents has reckoned Morocco was too important an ally — the appearance of American neutrality was nonetheless useful, as was the occasional finger-wagging from Washington over human-rights abuses in the region. It made space for other countries to restrain Rabat from formalizing its annexation of a territory larger than Britain, with vast phosphate deposits and fewer than 600,000 people.

The Sahrawis will now count on more support from their other neighbor, Algeria, which has historically supported their independence claims and backs the Polisario Front.

Trump’s announcement will also greatly complicate efforts by other parties — from the African Union to Spain — to end the impasse over the Western Sahara.

But arguably the party most diplomatically inconvenienced by the deal will be the U.S. itself. This is more than another Trumpian mess for Biden to clean up. Along with Trump’s support last year for Israeli claims to sovereignty over the Golan Heights, this represents a direct rejection of the principle, enshrined in the UN Charter, that countries cannot acquire territory by war. Or at least that is what rulers seeking such acquisitions — think of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his claims on Crimea — will argue.

Biden will quickly need to distance himself from Trump’s decision, without antagonizing Israel or Morocco, and reaffirm American commitment to international law and a mediated end to conflicts.

What’s the Russian for, “Good luck with that”? 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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