In struggles for West Sahara and West Bank, thorny parallels may loom for Israel

Both places are claimed by one people and occupied by another. Could new US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over one of the territories have impact on the status of the second?

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Sahrawi children from Western Sahara sit in their classroom in the Smara refugee camp near Tindouf, south-western Algeria, March 4, 2016. (AP/ Toukik Doudou).
Sahrawi children from Western Sahara sit in their classroom in the Smara refugee camp near Tindouf, south-western Algeria, March 4, 2016. (AP/ Toukik Doudou).

They are both rugged regions claimed by an indigenous population but ruled by a UN member state in a seemingly neverending struggle. They have both seen periods of violent fighting and are riven by a physical barrier built for security. They are both the subject of countless UN resolutions, international condemnations, and US-brokered peace plans. They are both places where US President Donald Trump’s administration has upended decades of consensus by favoring the ruling party’s claims. Not to mention, they both have “west” in their names.

Though thousands of miles away from each other, and the subject of utterly different conflicts, Western Sahara and the West Bank sometimes seem to share uncanny similarities. At the same time, there are fundamental differences between the two territories, both in terms of their history and how they are viewed by the international community.

Last week, the two were linked fatefully when the Trump administration recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, seemingly in exchange for Morocco agreeing to re-establish ties with Israel.

But while some see the similarities possibly foreshadowing a similar step for Israel’s currently suspended plan to annex the West Bank, others note that Washington’s recognition of Morocco’s claims over the territory may have far-reaching implications that may not necessarily work in Israel’s favor.

The Western Sahara situation “in some ways resembles Israel’s, because there was no previous sovereign when Morocco took control,” said Eugene Kontorovich, an Israeli-American expert on international law who did extensive research on the issues. “On the other hand, Morocco lacks the strength of Israel’s claims, based on the prior borders of the [British] Mandate, which is a strong legal claim.”

The West Bank was part of the British Mandate for Palestine from the fall of the Ottoman Empire until British forces left in 1948. It was controlled by Jordan until Israel captured it in 1967, though it was never annexed by Jerusalem, and Jordan, whose annexation was not recognized by the international community, no longer maintains any claim over it.

Two Polisario Front rebel soldiers point toward Moroccan army positions, while patrolling a cease-fire line in northern Western Sahara, 40 miles north of the town of Tifariti, September 26, 1997. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

In the Western Sahara, on the other hand, Morocco did formally annex the territory — two-thirds of it in 1976 and the final third in 1979 — shortly after Spain withdrew from the former colony, which was home to nomadic Arab tribes known as Sahrawis.

A vast desert landscape that is known as the world’s largest non-self ruled territory, today some 650,000 people call Western Sahara home, many of them Moroccans moved to the area to bolster its claims in an apparent bid to tip the demographic balance.

When Madrid withdrew from what was then known as Spanish Sahara, the Sahrawi’s Algeria-backed Polisario Front declared independence. Although the so-called Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is not a member state of the UN, it was recognized by several countries and is a full member of the African Union.

A non-binding opinion by the International Court of Justice in 1975 found that there are indeed “legal ties of allegiance” between the kingdom and some of the tribes living in Western Sahara, but did not support the kingdom’s claim for territorial sovereignty. Rather, the court’s advisory opinion stressed the “principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory.”

Pro-independence Polisario Front rebel soldiers ride camels during a military parade in the Western Sahara village of Tifariti, February 27, 2011 to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the RASD (Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic). (AP Photo/Arturo Rodriguez)

Before last week, not a single country formally recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the entire area, though some Arab states have backed Rabat’s claims.

Likewise, the international community nearly unanimously refuses to recognize Israel’s claims over the West Bank, home to some 450,000 settlers and over 2.5 million Palestinians, with most countries calling Israeli settlements illegal.

But the international consensus on both territories has been broken by the Trump administration.

In November 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suddenly declared that the settlements are “not per se inconsistent with international law,” and a few weeks later, the US administration presented its proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that gave Israel the green light to apply sovereignty over the entire Jordan Valley and all settlements across the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to do just that, but suspended the plans in order to secure groundbreaking diplomatic relations with the UAE, followed by other Arab states.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, center, and then-tourism minister Yariv Levin during a meeting to discuss mapping extension of Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank, held in the Ariel settlement, February 24, 2020. (David Azagury/US Embassy Jerusalem)

In Morocco’s case, it was the country’s agreement to re-establish its relationship with Israel that wound up bolstering its annexation claim, gaining US recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara as part of an apparent quid-pro-quo.

On December 10, Trump proclaimed that Washington henceforth supports Morocco’s “serious, credible, and realistic autonomy proposal as the only basis for a just and lasting solution to the dispute over the Western Sahara territory.”

An independent Sahrawi state is “not a realistic option for resolving the conflict,” he argued, saying that “genuine autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty is the only feasible solution.”

David Fischer, the US ambassador to Morocco, stands before a new US State Department map of Morocco recognizing the internationally-disputed territory of the Western Sahara (bearing a signature by Fischer) as a part of the North African kingdom, in the Moroccan capital Rabat, on December 12, 2020. (AFP)

While Morocco’s allies applauded the move, it was controversial in other quarters. Israel, which got diplomatic ties with Rabat out of Trump’s deal, has not officially taken a position on the question of Western Sahara.

However, some see wide-reaching ramifications for Israel in Trump’s recognition decision that extend beyond the ability to fly direct from Tel Aviv to Rabat.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI, riding a horse, waves as he leaves the Moulay Abdelaziz mosque of Laayaoune, Western Sahara, November 2, 2001, as part of his historic visit to the long-contested stretch of desert. (AP Photo/Jalil Bounhar)

According to Kontorovich, who has defended Israeli settlement building as legal, Washington’s move sets a precedent that could be used to recognize Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank.

Palestinians already enjoy “vastly” more autonomy than what Sawharis have been offered in a Rabat-backed peace plan, which has largely been shelved in any case, he noted.

“So of course, this sets the stage for a potential US recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank with Palestinian ‘autonomy on steroids,’” he said, borrowing a term coined by MK Naftali Bennett, one of Israel’s most prominent opponents of Palestinian statehood.

Israel has not applied sovereignty over the West Bank and is unlikely to do so in the near future, as such a move could jeopardize the recent normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates — which only agreed to establish ties with the Jewish state after it froze its annexation bid — Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.

But even if it wanted to, it is not that simple. Israel formally considers the West Bank occupied territory, which means it cannot realize its sovereignty on the territory unilaterally, and has agreed to determine the final status of the West Bank through negotiations.

Morocco, on the other hand, annexed the Western Sahara, and the international community, for historical reasons going back to colonial times, does not consider it occupied territory either, but rather a “non-self-governing territory” in dispute.

Thus, the international community’s accepted framework for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict envisions ending Israel’s “occupation” and the implementation of a two-state solution leading to a sovereign Palestinian state, whereas, in Western Sahara, the generally accepted solution is a referendum to let the residents of the Western Sahara choose between independence or unification with Morocco.

Palestinian artists draw murals depicting the Dome of the Rock and the West Bank, as part of an awareness campaign against Israel’s West Bank annexation plans, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on July 1, 2020. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Beyond that, there are dangers for Israel lurking in Trump’s move to unilaterally grant a disputed territory to one of the conflicting parties as well.

If the US can simply declare that Western Sahara is part of Morocco, what stops other countries from recognizing a Palestinian state in the West Bank?

Jerusalem argues that the conflict with the Palestinians needs to be resolved through bilateral negotiations and cannot be imposed from the outside. So undoing an agreed-upon mechanism for conflict resolution is not necessarily in Israel’s interest.

“In both the Israeli and Moroccan occupations, there has been bipartisan [US] support for the occupiers, but previous administrations recognized the dangerous legal precedent of formal recognition,” Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco who focuses on Middle East diplomacy, wrote in one of several op-eds on this topic.

A woman supporting pro-independence Polisario Front rebel soldiers walks near a makeshift Western Sahara flag of painted stones reading: ‘Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (or SADR) free,’ in the desert near Tifariti, May 20, 2008. (Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP)

Elliot Engel, the chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, worried that Trump’s Morocco announcement “upends a credible, internationally supported UN process to address the territorial dispute over Western Sahara, which successive administrations of both parties have supported.”

“Casting aside legitimate multilateral avenues of conflict resolution only empowers countries like Russia and China to continue trampling on international rules and norms, and rewards those who violate borders and the rights of free peoples,” he said in a statement.

Former US national security adviser John Bolton, who has been supportive of Israel’s West Bank annexation plan and US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, worried that Trump’s quid-pro-quo would set a dangerous precedent by which transactional politics would outweigh policy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-US national security adviser John Bolton tour the Jordan Valley, in the West Bank, on June 23, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

It is perfectly fine for Washington to adjust policies in the light of changing national-security circumstances, “but it is quite another to gratuitously destroy a commitment, with no consultation, just to make a so-called deal in a completely separate context,” he wrote in Foreign Policy magazine, calling on the incoming administration to reverse the recognition.

Jerusalem would have nothing to fear from Joe Biden making such a move, as Morocco is “no longer really concerned about its monarchy’s stability being undermined by formal diplomatic ties with Israel,” and thus unlikely to walk back its normalization agreement.

On the contrary, graciously welcoming the new administration’s stance may earn Jerusalem brownie points, he posited. “In this way, he could, at essentially no cost to Israel — for which the Western Sahara is a non-issue — add to his political capital with Biden for issues that really matter, like taking on the threat posed by Iran.”

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