Trump’s Deal With Morocco All but Forecloses Self-Determination for Western Sahara

Trump’s Deal With Morocco All but Forecloses Self-Determination for Western Sahara
A protester waves the Sahrawi flag during a demonstration in front of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Madrid, Dec. 10, 2020 (Photo by Diego Radames for Sipa via AP Images).

U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprise move last week to recognize Morocco’s claim to the disputed region of Western Sahara, in exchange for Morocco normalizing relations with Israel, ushered a long-frozen conflict into a new and more volatile phase. In one sense, it is formal acknowledgement of the reality that Morocco has cemented its de facto control over most of Western Sahara. With U.S. backing, Morocco now has even less incentive to cooperate with the United Nations in its decades-long effort to determine the fate of the coastal desert territory through a referendum on self-determination, promised after the U.N. brokered a cease-fire in 1991 to end 16 years of conflict between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front. Morocco had annexed Western Sahara in 1975, following Spain’s withdrawal after nearly a century of colonial occupation.

The 1991 truce collapsed last month, when the two sides exchanged fire after the Polisario Front claimed that Morocco’s military had made an incursion into a U.N.-monitored buffer zone. Now, the Trump administration’s abrupt decision to change decades of U.S. policy threatens to further raise tensions in the region.

Trump’s announcement does not really fit into the so-called Abraham Accords, the U.S.-brokered agreements that have facilitated diplomatic normalization between Israel and three other Arab states: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan. Morocco and Israel established low-level diplomatic relations in the 1990s, and while those ties broke down with the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, the two countries have since maintained close unofficial contacts. Morocco has a rich Jewish history, and tens of thousands of Israelis of Moroccan origin visit the kingdom each year. King Mohammed VI’s father, Hassan II, was valued in Washington for his discreet role in facilitating U.S. diplomacy on the Arab-Israel conflict.

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