Netanyahu sought deal with US, Morocco to allow normalization of ties — report

Israeli TV says PM proposed arrangement that would see US recognize Moroccan claims in disputed Western Sahara, in exchange for Rabat improving relations with Jerusalem

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Morocco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita (R) during his visit to Rabat on December 5, 2019. (AFP)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Morocco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita (R) during his visit to Rabat on December 5, 2019. (AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly attempted to arrange a three-way agreement by which the United States would recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara territory, in exchange for Morocco taking steps to normalize relations with Israel.

Netanyahu made several overtures to Washington over the past year to promote such a deal, but former national security adviser John Bolton was strongly opposed, according to a Channel 13 news report Monday.

Following Bolton’s departure in September, Netanyahu reportedly raised the matter again with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but the White House has not agreed to the trade-off.

The report was broadcast on the same day that Netanyahu held a secret meeting with the transitional leader of Sudan, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, with the two leaders promising to normalize ties between their countries. Officials in Sudan have said the meeting was intended to help Sudan improve ties with the US and get off a terror sanctions list.

An Israeli official told the network that the Moroccans were very unhappy with the gap between Netanyahu’s promises and the results so far, along with his touting of clandestine relations with Rabat for his own political purposes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with then US National Security Adviser John Bolton, during a statement to the media follow their meeting in Jerusalem on January 6, 2019. ( Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)

Israeli officials cited in the report said the proposed deal had something for everyone — US President Donald Trump could boast of having advanced ties between Israel and an Arab state, Netanyahu could visit Morocco and hold a high-profile meeting with King Mohammed VI, and Rabat could secure US recognition of its claims in the Western Sahara.

Morocco occupied large swathes of the Western Sahara in 1975 as Spain withdrew from the area and later annexed the territories in a move not recognized internationally.

The Israeli proposal was relayed to the US by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, who the TV report said had developed ties with an aide to Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita. Both Ben-Shabbat and Bourita also reportedly had ties with Yariv Elbaz, a Jewish businessman who is close to Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Morocco is considered an ally of the United States, and has long maintained informal but close intelligence ties with Israel.

Though the countries have no formal relations, Morocco has hosted Israeli leaders, and Israelis are allowed to visit there. Some 3,000 Jews live in Morocco, a fraction of the number from before the 1948 creation of Israel, but still the largest community in the Arab world.

In December, Channel 12 news reported that Netanyahu hoped to join Pompeo on a trip to Morocco, but when the secretary of state proposed the idea to the Moroccans, they refused and even declined to discuss the issue of normalization.

Pompeo had also been due to have an audience with the Moroccan king but the meeting was dropped, apparently after the top US diplomat extended a visit to Portugal to see Netanyahu.

US officials at the time also confirmed that the expected normalization talks between Pompeo and the king did not happen.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI visits ‘House of Memory’ dedicated to the historic coexistence of its Jewish and Muslim communities, Essaouira, Morocco, January 15, 2020 (Screen grab via Channel 12)

Morocco is one of several Arab states in the Middle East being pushed by the US to sign non-belligerence agreements with Israel, as a step toward normalizing relations with the Jewish state, Axios reported in December.

Last week, Morocco’s military took possession of three Israeli-made reconnaissance drones sold to the Arab nation via France, according to French website Intelligence Online.

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