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How Israel’s decision on Western Sahara came about

Netanyahu promised he would recognize Moroccan sovereignty. But the big breakthrough happened when Israel's Minister Ofir Akunis delivered a speech.

KIng Mohammed VI (right) hosts then-U.S. presidential adviser Jared Kushner (second from left) and then-Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat (left) in Rabat, Dec. 22, 2020. Credit: David Azagury/U.S. Embassy Jerusalem via Wikimedia Commons.
KIng Mohammed VI (right) hosts then-U.S. presidential adviser Jared Kushner (second from left) and then-Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat (left) in Rabat, Dec. 22, 2020. Credit: David Azagury/U.S. Embassy Jerusalem via Wikimedia Commons.

New details have come to light on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to recognize Western Sahara as a part of Morocco.

Back when he was still the leader of the opposition, Netanyahu promised the Moroccans to respond to their request, Israel Hayom has learned. Subsequently, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen made statements that were misinterpreted by Rabat, leading to a dispute between the countries, and eventually Israel took the dramatic step of recognizing Moroccan sovereignty.

Going back to the period of the Bennett-Lapid government, Israeli politicians had been wrestling for two years with the issue of whether or not to recognize Western Sahara. The arguments against doing so were the anticipated criticism from some European states and concern that some of them might even declare recognition of “Palestine” in response.

During his visit to Israel in March 2022, Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita met with then-opposition leader Netanyahu, Israel Hayom has also learned. It was during this meeting that Netanyahu promised that should he return to power, he would recognize Western Sahara as part of Morocco in the name of the State of Israel.

As things turned out, on Dec. 29, Netanyahu indeed returned to the Prime Minister’s Office, but for various reasons, implementation of this decision was delayed. Among other things, he sought to secure a clear undertaking from Rabat that it would provide Israel with something in return, but the Moroccans gave him the cold shoulder.

Eventually, the breakthrough occurred following a speech delivered in March 2023 by, of all people, Innovation, Science and Technology by Minister Ofir Akunis. On behalf of Israel, he promised to invest in desalination plants in Western Sahara. Akunis subsequently met with Morocco’s Minister of Equipment and Water Nizar Baraka.

The process moved ahead until remarks Cohen delivered a briefing to the foreign media about 10 days ago. In response to a question regarding the Israeli position on Western Sahara, he said, “We are currently working on that issue, and our plan is to reach a final decision at the Negev Forum scheduled to take place in September.”

Cohen was simply reflecting the process taking place behind the scenes, in which Israel had indeed decided to recognize Western Sahara as part of Morocco. However, in the Moroccan media, his words were interpreted as an attempt to ratchet up the pressure on Rabat and to apply conditions to Jerusalem’s recognition.

Last week, Bourita phoned the head of the Israeli National Security Council, Tzachi Hanegbi, asking for clarification on what Cohen had said.

In response and to make it crystal clear that Israel had absolutely no intention of trying to gain any leverage over Morocco, both the National Security Council and the Israeli Foreign Ministry worked to expedite the dispatch of Netanyahu’s letter in which he declared Israel’s recognition of Western Sahara.

Now, King Mohammed VI has invited Netanyahu to visit Morocco, and Rabat is “in the process” of upgrading its diplomatic mission in Israel to an embassy.

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