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Morocco said delaying Tel Aviv embassy amid demands Israel back Western Sahara claim

Rabat reportedly pressuring Jerusalem to formally recognize sovereignty over disputed north African territory as Foreign Ministry holds back

Illustrative: Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita takes part in a virtual meeting with his US and Israeli counterparts, at his office in the capital Rabat, on December 22, 2021. (AFP)
Illustrative: Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita takes part in a virtual meeting with his US and Israeli counterparts, at his office in the capital Rabat, on December 22, 2021. (AFP)

Moroccan officials are reportedly pressuring Israel to recognize Morocco’s control over the disputed Western Sahara, and are connecting the establishment of a Moroccan embassy in Israel to the territory, according to a Wednesday report.

The US news outlet Axios, citing four current and former Israeli officials, said Morocco has brought up the issue repeatedly in meetings with Israeli representatives in recent months.

Morocco has opened liaison offices in Israel, and has committed to opening an embassy in Tel Aviv, but each time Israeli officials bring up the issue, Moroccan representatives demand formal recognition of the country’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, Axios reported.

While some Israeli politicians have supported Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara in public statements, the Foreign Ministry has refrained from recognizing Moroccan control of the territory.

During her visit to Morocco in June, then-interior minister Ayelet Shaked publicly expressed for the first time Israel’s support for Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Then-foreign minister Yair Lapid was more ambiguous, saying Israel would work to counter “attempts to weaken Moroccan sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and calling “Morocco’s autonomy plan for the Western Sahara… a positive development,” but refraining from stating a clear stance on the issue.

The Foreign Ministry also distanced itself from comments recognizing Moroccan sovereignty in the area by former justice minister Gideon Sa’ar during his visit to Morocco in July.

Then Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, center, with Ambassador to Morocco David Govrin, left, and Jewish community leader Samy Cohen, during her visit to Morocco, June 20, 2022. (screen capture: Instagram)

Morocco cut relations with Israel in 2000 following the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada, but re-established ties two decades later in a deal that saw Washington, under the Trump administration, recognize Rabat’s sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara as part of the agreement.

Morocco laid claim to the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony with rich phosphate resources and offshore fisheries, after Spain withdrew in 1975.

But the Algeria-backed Polisario Front took up arms to demand independence in the territory, proclaiming the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976 and fighting a 16-year war with Morocco.

In 2006, Morocco submitted a proposal to the UN that would give Western Sahara autonomy, while remaining a sovereign part of the kingdom.

In March, the office of Morocco’s King Mohamed VI revealed that Spain’s prime minister had sent a letter endorsing the Moroccan proposal as “the most serious, realistic, and credible for resolving the dispute.”

According to the report, Israel has refused to accede to Rabat’s demands, which officials believe is being used by Morocco to justify its foot-dragging on the embassy opening, fearing criticism of a Tel Aviv embassy back home.

This picture taken on December 12, 2020, shows US and Moroccan flags next to a new US State Department map of Morocco recognizing the internationally-disputed territory of the Western Sahara as a part of the North African kingdom, in the Moroccan capital Rabat on December 12, 2020. (AFP)

Otherwise, relations between Jerusalem and Rabat seem to be getting stronger.

Israel Defense Forces chief Aviv Kohavi visited Morocco last week, consolidating the strategic and military alliance between the Jewish state and the North African country.

His visit came after the IDF participated for the first time in a major American-led military drill held in Morocco and nearby African nations in July.

Lazar Berman and AFP contributed to this report.

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