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According to a letter from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli government has decided to “recognize Morocco’s sovereignty” over the contentious Western Sahara territory, the royal office in Rabat stated on Monday, July 17. The conflict between Morocco and the indigenous people of Saharawi, who are demanding the independence of Western Sahara, has lasted for almost fifty years: the Western Sahara conflict began in fact in 1975, when the former colonial authority of Spain withdrew from the region. This action sparked a long-lasting dispute between Morocco and the Saharawi’s people, supported by the Polisario Front, a militant organization and political movement active in order to achieve the realization of the right of the Saharawi’s people to self-determination.
Power relations – political and military – are however strongly unbalanced: Rabat controls nearly 80% of Western Sahara and exerts its sovereignty over it as its territory, meaning it also claims all of Western Sahara’s resources.
Under international law, the Saharawis are a non-self-governing people, but they still have sovereign rights of ownership over the resources, which means that a people has the exclusive right to own, manage and exploit the resources on the territory in which it is settled.
In reality, by denying the Saharawis’ political sovereignty over the Western Sahara, Morocco is also denying sovereignty over its natural resources, which Rabat considers to be its own. Morocco is in fact exploiting the two primary resources of this territory -phosphate and fisheries-, using them for its economic and political objectives. If, on one hand, the resources of Western Sahara are the objective of trade deals with the European Union, enriching the African monarchy, the activity is being pursued in order to better serve an ostensible annexation project, and to generate acceptance of territorial acquisition in the organized international community. Despite several rulings from the EU Court of Justice that have found the application of EU-Morocco bilateral agreements to be illegal, the European Commission continues to refer to “the advantages for the people of Western Sahara” while condoning the EU-Morocco trade agreement.
For their part, the United Nations and the states most interested in Western Sahara have remained silent. The UN has confidence in Security Council resolution 2654/2022, which only reaffirms the current situation and encourages a shared political solution.
The situation is now evolving and is likely that the international community will not engage in claiming the sovereignty of Western Sahara, while, on the other hand, regional geopolitics and economic and strategic interests are reinforced.
Morocco has had control of the territory, but little international recognition; now, Israel joins the United States and Spain as the only countries to acknowledge the kingdom’s annexation of the disputed North African territory. In fact, the US had agreed to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty in Western Sahara in exchange for Rabat’s normalization of ties with Israel. The negotiation of crucial issues were also central in the recognition from Spain in March 2022, that asked for greater migration control from Morocco. Using the migration issue as political leverage proved to be a winning move for Morocco: Sánchez endorsed Morocco’s 2007 plan on the Western Sahara issue, reinforcing the status quo by maintaining Morocco’s political and military control over the territory.
The recognition by Israel plays a great role in establishing new geometries and relations of power. As presented by the authorities of the two States, this recognition can bring regional peace and cooperation: for instance, Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen said the announcement would “strengthen the relations between the countries and between the peoples”, while King Mohamed VI of Morocco invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for an official visit, affirming that this event “would open new opportunities for strengthening bilateral relations”.
Those newly established ties confirm the strategy of Israel in the region: Tel Aviv is in fact strengthening more and more its position not only with some Gulf countries thanks to the Abraham Accords, but also cementing its connections with the North African counterparts. In the effort to normalize relations with the Arab states and to counterbalance the dangerous political situation in the Middle East by exiting isolation, Israel’s strategy is paying off.
On the other hand, for the civil society and for activists of Western Sahara, the recognition comes as an additional defeat. But while activists in Western Sahara are calling for renewed solidarity from Palestinians, brotherly seen as a struggling community in an occupied territory, the support does not seem to be mutual: but despite the similarities, the Palestinian leadership has remained close to the Moroccan government’s stance.
This additional piece in the puzzle sheds a light on the ever changing and complex relations between governments and non-State actors: the support of Palestinian authorities finds its reason in the trust placed upon the fact that the Israeli recognition of Western Sahara will not affect Morocco’s principles in defending a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as stated by Moroccan authorities.
Each move by each actor in the chessboard of the Middle East creates reaction and further complicates the web of relations. For each recognition there’s an exchange, for each normalization there are mutual avantages, but for each deal there’s always a voice that remains unheard. European actors strike economic and political deals with North African governments, Arab states rewrite historical alliances with sworn enemies: this recognition of the Western Sahara by Israel and the renewed connection with Morocco is only the most recent event, but not the last.
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