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Shaked affirms support of Morocco on Western Sahara, says she’s 1st Israeli to do so

Visiting minister’s assertion, which was made after meetings with Moroccan officials, appears to be undercut by her hosts, who say she ‘reaffirmed’ Israel’s position

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

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

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked on Tuesday took credit for affirming publicly for the first time Israel’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, a claim that Rabat appeared to undercut.

According to a statement issued by her office, Shaked “publicly expressed for the first time Israel’s support of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara.” The statement did not include a direct quote and her spokeswoman declined to provide one, referring The Times of Israel back to the aforementioned statement.

The statement was picked up by Hebrew media outlets, which ran headlines proclaiming that Shaked was the first to affirm Jerusalem’s backing of Rabat’s sovereignty over the disputed, resource-rich region.

But Morocco’s state-owned news outlet did provide a quote, which undermined Shaked’s assertion. According to Maghreb Arabe Presse news agency, Shaked told reporters after meeting with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita that “Israel reaffirms its support for Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara.”

Reaffirming, of course, means it has been affirmed in the past.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was seen to have publicly endorsed Morocco’s position after hosting Bourita at the Negev Summit in March. Lapid issued a statement that the six participating countries, including Israel and Morocco, would together work to counter “attempts to weaken Moroccan sovereignty and territorial integrity,” a thinly veiled allusion to the Western Sahara issue.

“We are determined to bring prosperity and peace to this region and beyond,” Lapid said at the time. “In this context, Spain’s statement last week in support of Morocco’s autonomy plan for the Western Sahara, a plan others have also already endorsed, is a positive development.”

The statement from Shaked’s office did not appear to be coordinated with the Foreign Ministry, which would only say in response that Israel’s official position on the Western Sahara is what Lapid expressed during the Negev Summit.

United Arab Emirates’ Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, right, makes remarks at the Negev Summit, with from left, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, March 28, 2022, in Sde Boker, Israel. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

A Spanish colony until 1975, Western Sahara is now controlled by Morocco, which sees it as part of its sovereign territory. The Algeria-backed Polisario Front has been fighting for independence ever since, in a conflict that is mostly marked by civil protests, but occasionally turns deadly.

In 2006, Morocco submitted a proposal to the UN that would give Western Sahara autonomy within Morocco. 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.”

Shaked’s assertion Tuesday was not the first pronouncement with diplomatic implications she has made while heading a ministry that has a primarily domestic focus. In 2016, when serving as justice minister, Shaked called for the formation of an independent Kurdish state, urging Israel to help Kurds in Iraq achieve that goal.

Though then-US president Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara as part of the December 2020 deal he mediated for Israel and Morocco to reestablish diplomatic ties, the move has faced pushback in Congress. Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont have been leading the opposition, organizing a February 2021 letter calling on President Joe Biden “to reverse this misguided decision and recommit the United States to the pursuit of a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara.”

They also tried to limit the State Department’s ability to fulfill Trump’s pledge to open a US consulate in Western Sahara in a draft of the 2022 appropriations bill, but that language was removed in the final version.

A Moroccan army vehicle drives past car wreckages in Guerguerat located in the Western Sahara on November 24, 2020, after the intervention of the royal Moroccan armed forces in the area. (Fadel SENNA / AFP)

The senators did manage to insert a provision into the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that blocks funds from being used to support Morocco’s participation in joint military exercises until Rabat shows commitment toward a Western Sahara peace deal. However, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was given the ability to bypass the provision if it endangers US national security.

Shaked’s visit comes as Morocco once again hosts the vast annual US-led African Lion military exercise, involving some 7,500 personnel from 10 countries including France and Britain.

For the first time, the exercise also includes Israeli military observers.

Toward full diplomatic relations

Shaked landed in Morocco on Monday, and will be in the kingdom until Thursday.

According to a statement from Shaked’s office,  she discussed a plan to bring Moroccan construction and healthcare workers to the Jewish state with Morocco’s Interior Minister Abdelouafi Laftit. They would sign the deal in the coming weeks, the statement said.

“The goal is to within a month begin a pilot of bringing foreign nursing care and construction workers from Morocco to Israel,” Shaked said.

The two interior ministers also discussed cooperation on medical initiatives and on water desalination. Shaked also proposed a plan to integrate Moroccan engineers into Israel’s tech sector.

According to her office, Shaked also thanked Laftit for the ease with which Israeli travelers have been granted visas to visit Morocco, and for the warm welcome they received.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (right) holds a bilateral meeting with his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita in Sde Boker, March 28, 2022 (Boaz Oppenheim/GPO)

According to the Moroccan Interior Ministry statement, the meeting between Laftit and Shaked “reflects the commitment of both countries to resume full official contacts between Moroccan and Israeli counterparts.”

The two countries still have not opened full-fledged embassies. Last week, Lapid revealed that Bourita would be visiting Israel this summer in order to open Morocco’s embassy in Israel. Jerusalem is expected to open its embassy in Rabat in parallel.

On Tuesday, Shaked and Bourita also discussed the “Iranian problem,” according to her office.

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