King: 'Special ties' with Jews; PM: 'Bright light of peace'

‘Historic’: Israel, Morocco agree on diplomatic ties ‘as soon as possible’

US move to recognize Rabat’s claim over Western Sahara paves way for fourth in series of Trump-brokered normalization accords, will include liaison offices and direct flights

(L-R) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and Moroccan King Mohammed VI (Abir Sultan, Evan Vucci and Moroccan Royal Palace/AP)
(L-R) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and Moroccan King Mohammed VI (Abir Sultan, Evan Vucci and Moroccan Royal Palace/AP)

Israel and Morocco have agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations, US President Donald Trump announced Thursday, marking the fourth Arab-Israel agreement in four months.

As part of the announcement, Trump said that the US would recognize Morocco’s claim over the disputed Western Sahara region.

As his time in office winds down, Trump said Israel and Morocco would restore diplomatic and other relations, including the immediate opening of liaison offices in Rabat and Tel Aviv and the eventual opening of embassies. US officials said it would also include joint overflight rights for airlines.

Channel 13 news reported that the White House is aiming to hold a ceremony to make the agreement official before Trump leaves office on January 20.

In their first reactions to Trump’s announcement later Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Moroccan King Mohammed VI lauded the latest normalization agreement.

“This will be a very warm peace. On this Hannukah, the light of peace has never shone brighter than today in the Middle East,” said Netanyahu at a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony at the Western Wall. He said the relationship of the peoples of both countries “has long been characterized by sympathy, respect, fondness and love,” and praised King Mohammed’s “historic decision” to make peace.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and US Ambassador David Friedman at the Western Wall on December 10, 2020, the first night of Hanukkah. Netanyahu hailed the “light” of US President Donald Trump’s announcement that Morocco and Israel are to establish full relations, issued hours earlier. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“I always believed in this peace, and now it’s happening before our eyes. I want to thank President Trump for his extraordinary efforts to expand peace to bring peace to Israel and the Middle East,” he said while standing alongside US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Netanyahu said direct flights between the countries would move ahead soon.

King Mohammed said in a statement that Morocco would take three moves in the near future to advance relations.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI flanked (with Crown Prince Moulay Hassan) waves to the crowd as he arrives for the opening session of the Moroccon Parliament in Rabat, on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar)

First, there would be moves to facilitate direct flights to transport Jews of Moroccan origin and Israeli tourists to and from Morocco, he said.

Second, the North African nation will also seek to “resume official bilateral ties and diplomatic relations [with Israel] as soon as possible.”

Morocco will also seek “to develop innovative relationships in the economic and technological fields. As part of this goal, there will be work on renewing liaison offices in the two countries, as was the case in the past for many years, until 2002,” King Mohammed said.

The king thanked Trump for recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed region of Western Sahara.

Explaining the decision to normalize, King Mohammed cited among other reasons “the historical role that Morocco has played in bringing the peoples of the region together and supporting security and stability in the Middle East, and given the special ties that bind the Jewish community of Moroccan origin, including those in Israel, to the person of His Majesty the King.”

Israel and Morocco established low-level diplomatic relations during the 1990s following Israel’s interim peace accords with the Palestinians, but those ties were suspended after the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000. Since then, however, the informal ties have continued, and an estimated 50,000 Israelis travel to Morocco each year on trips, learning about the Jewish community and retracing family histories.

Announcing the breakthrough, the White House said Trump and King Mohammed VI had agreed in a conversation that Morocco would “resume diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel and expand economic and cultural cooperation to advance regional stability.”

In a separate but likely closely-tied statement, the US said it would recognize Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara, the former Spanish North African territory which has been the focus of a long-running dispute that has confounded international negotiators for decades.

In a subsequent briefing with reporters, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner said the decision on Western Sara was a “recognition of an inevitability” after there had “quite frankly… been no progress” for decades.

He expressed hope that the move would make the region more stable, calling the Moroccan Kingdom a “tolerant society.”

Morocco is the fourth Arab nation to recognize Israel as the administration seeks to expand its “Abraham Accords” framework, which began over the summer with an agreement between the Jewish state and the United Arab Emirates.

Bahrain and Sudan have followed suit and administration officials have also been trying to bring Saudi Arabia into the fold.

“The president reaffirmed his support for 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 and as such the president recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara territory,” the White House said.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi also welcomed the move in a statement, thanking Trump for “promoting peace and stability in the Middle East and supporting Israel.”

“This is another great day for Israeli diplomacy — a day of light — as befits the holiday of Hanukkah,” he added, referencing the Jewish holiday that began on Thursday evening.

According to Channel 13, Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Benny Gantz — of the fractious coalition’s Blue and White Party –were updated regarding progress on the deal several weeks ago, but only by the White House and not Netanyahu’s office. Channel 12 said Netanyahu spoke on the phone with Gantz earlier Thursday, and did not mention the imminent announcement.

The two Blue and White ministers were also kept out of the loop ahead of the normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, which they only learned about after the fact.

Kushner told reporters that Israel and Morocco would “reopen their liaison offices in Rabat and Tel Aviv immediately with the intention to open embassies.

“And they are going to promote economic cooperation between Israeli and Moroccan companies,” he added.

“Through this historic step, Morocco is building on its longstanding bond with the Moroccan Jewish community living in Morocco and throughout the world, including in Israel. This is a significant step forward for the people of Israel and Morocco,” he said.

Kushner also insisted that it was only a matter of time before Saudi Arabia would agree to follow suit.

“Israel and Saudi Arabia coming together and having full normalization at this point is an inevitability, but the timeframe, obviously, will come — is something that has to be worked out,” Kushner told reporters, adding that it would require “strong US leadership in the region.”

“If you look at where we’ve come in last six months, the region has essentially gone from a solid to a liquid and it feels like there’s a lot more fluidity,” he said.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, right, looks on during a meeting between US President Donald Trump, left, and leaders at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Asked during the briefing to address alleged human rights abuses in the countries the US has pushed to agree to normalization agreements with Israel, Kushner said” “We recognize that some of these countries share our values more than others do.”

He went on to argue that in forging better relations with such countries, the US is in a better position “to get what we want” on other issues while pointing out that the Islamic State “was not too good with human rights” either.

The Freedom house labels Morocco as “partly free,” pointing out that while the country holds parliamentary elections, “King Mohammed VI maintains dominance through a combination of substantial formal powers and informal lines of influence in the state and society. Many civil liberties are constrained in practice.”

While the deal is certain to be welcomed warmly in Israel, it was not immediately clear how the Moroccan public would react. In September, hundreds demonstrated in Rabat against the Israeli normalization deals with the “treacherous countries” UAE and Bahrain.

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