Israel and the US have been discussing a deal that would see the US recognize Moroccan sovereignty in the Western Sahara and Morocco take steps to normalize relations with Israel, Barak Ravid of Channel 13 News revealed on Monday, citing Israeli and US sources.
Such a deal would be a major diplomatic achievement for Morocco's king, Mohammed VI, and a boost for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu — who would get a high-profile public visit to Morocco — in perilous political times.
It could also advance the Trump administration's aim of bringing Israel and Arab states closer together, but would be a highly controversial step that runs counter to the international consensus.
The Western Sahara is a sparsely populated disputed territory, formerly controlled by Spain but claimed by Morocco despite international opposition and fierce resistance from the indigenous population.
According to Ravid’s report, contacts between Netanyahu and the Moroccans started getting more serious after a secret meeting with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2018.
That meeting was the result of a back channel established between Bourita and Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, with the help of businessman Yariv Elbaz.
Elbaz, a Moroccan Jew, is one of the main food retailers in Morocco and a close associate of Jared Kushner.
In May 2019, Elbaz met with Kushner in Morocco and took him and the entire White House peace team for a visit at the old Jewish cemetery in Casablanca.
The back channel was established behind the back of Mossad director Yossi Cohen, who is in charge of Israel’s secret diplomacy in the Arab world.
Cohen was furious when it was discovered, but Netanyahu told Ben-Shabbat to push ahead anyway, according to Ravid.
Israeli sources said Ben-Shabbat wanted to use Israel’s close relations with the Trump administration to reach a breakthrough with Morocco.
He approached Trump administration officials and proposed the US support the Moroccan position on a sensitive national security issue — the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara.
The proposal for a trilateral deal was also conveyed to the Moroccans, Israeli officials said.
Netanyahu tried to push the deal ahead of Israel's April 2019 election, but it was shelved when details of Ben-Shabbat's visit to Morocco leaked to the Arab press.
He tried again before the September 2019 election, but then-national security adviser John Bolton, a fierce opponent of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, killed the idea.
The issue came up again in November, before Secretary of State Pompeo’s visit to Morocco. Nothing came of it while Pompeo was in Rabat.
Morocco and Israel announced the opening of bilateral liaison offices in 1994, but those offices were closed in 2000 due to the wave of violence known as the “Second Intifada”.
Morocco supported the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) unilateral move to gain observer status at the United Nations in 2012.
There remains a Jewish community in Morocco, though it is not as large as it once was, with only about 3,000 people of the once 250,000-strong Jewish community still living there.