An honor guard welcomes then-IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in Rabat, July 19, 2022. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit.
An honor guard welcomes then-IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in Rabat, July 19, 2022. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit.
featureMiddle East

Israel’s recognition of Western Sahara a blow to Iran

The move strengthens ties with Morocco and disrupts Tehran's and Hezbollah's efforts in North Africa.

In a significant step for Israel-Morocco relations, King Mohammed VI on Wednesday invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit the kingdom.

The invitation came after Israel officially recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara region earlier in the week.

The invitation came in the form of a warm, personal letter in which His Majesty thanked the State of Israel for its recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. The visit will open up new possibilities for strengthening relations between the two countries, the king wrote.

Israel’s decision also holds immense significance due to its direct impact on the activities of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah in North Africa, disrupting their efforts to establish roots and expand their presence in the region.

Former Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat told JNS that while he is aware that the steps towards recognizing Western Sahara took place over an extended period of time, “there is importance in Israel strengthening its position and presence on the African continent, especially at a time when Iran and its partners are trying to establish a foothold in Africa.”

Addressing why Israel waited until now to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty, he said he assumes that part of the time was required to examine the step’s possible consequences.

According to Ben-Shabbat, the recognition “is a proper and desirable step for several reasons. It reflects the deep trust between Israel and Morocco and Israel’s commitment to developing warm relations between the two countries and peoples.”

It “promotes a realistic and existing solution to this territory, which the United States has also recognized,” and “serves as a clear statement against the forces that oppose Morocco, supported by Iran and Algeria,” he said.

Ben-Shabbat said Israel can expect that ties between the two countries will improve even further now, adding that “despite the impressive progress in relations between Israel and Morocco since normalization, there is still great untapped potential in the economic, technological and political spheres.

“Additionally,” he said, “Morocco can play an important role in bringing other North African countries into the peace circle.”

Western Sahara shares a border with Mauritania, which Israel hopes will also normalize ties with it as part of the Abraham Accords.

The Algerian angle

In an effort to maintain parity with its formidable regional counterpart, Algeria, Morocco is actively bolstering its defense investments. For numerous years, Rabat has perceived Algeria as a significant threat, particularly following the termination of diplomatic ties by Algiers in August 2011.

As part of this effort, Morocco has been preparing to acquire an undisclosed number of decommissioned Merkava tanks from Israel. The completion of this deal, anticipated within the coming months, will mark Morocco as the first foreign buyer of Merkava tanks.

According to a Foreign Policy article in June, “After [President Donald] Trump recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco normalizing its relationship with Israel, Tel Aviv and Rabat cemented the deal with a bevy of military and economic agreements. Algeria sees this new romance between Morocco, the United States, and Israel—three of its longtime enemies—as a threat to its security.”

In 2020, when Morocco reestablished diplomatic relations with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords, the Algerian government initiated a smear campaign against the kingdom, despite its reputation for tolerance and coexistence. However, at the same time, discreetly, Algeria engaged in undisclosed business dealings with Israel.

While Israel has no diplomatic relations with Algeria, Israel’s imports from the country stood at $21.38 million in 2022, according to the United Nations Comtrade database.

So while it refrains from officially recognizing Israel and publicly expresses animosity towards it, Algeria sells goods to Israel, facilitated by the ruling junta.

The Western Sahara is the primary source of contention between Morocco and Algeria. After Spain withdrew from the area in 1975, both Morocco and Mauritania claimed sovereignty over the territory. The Polisario Front, a movement representing the indigenous Sahrawi people, also declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and sought independence.

Algeria supported the Polisario Front, providing it with military aid and training and diplomatic recognition. Morocco eventually gained control over most of the Western Sahara, while the Polisario Front maintained control over some parts, leading to a prolonged conflict.

The conflict between Morocco and Algeria has been fueled by ideological differences as well. Historically, Algeria aligned itself with socialist and anti-colonial movements, supporting self-determination struggles across Africa. Morocco, on the other hand, has maintained closer ties with Western powers and pursued a more pro-Western foreign policy.

The Iranian threat

Dr. Yechiel Leiter, the director-general of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, also views Israel’s gesture to Morocco as positive.

“Morocco shares a long border with Algeria, an ally of Iran, which directly threatens it militarily and through its support for Polisario separatism. Were the Polisario to achieve its goal, Western Sahara would be an Algerian puppet state, contributing to strengthening an Iranian proxy,” Leiter told JNS.

He noted that the Iranian regime “supplies the Polisario with antiaircraft missiles and drones through the services of Algeria and Hezbollah. Together with the IRGC [Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps], Hezbollah is also training Polisario fighters. The Polisario itself has provided cover for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a terrorist group that is active in the Sahel region.”

Morocco also plays a key role in global food production, a major component of which is fertilizer, which requires phosphates. As Leiter points out, “A full 72% of the known phosphate deposits are found in Morocco, and 7% are in Western Sahara. Allowing moderate Morocco to be surrounded by hostile and destabilizing Iranian proxies could potentially have great impact on food security worldwide.”

“The implications of such a concentration of a critical component of the world’s food supply are sobering,” he said. “Were 7% of the world’s known phosphate deposits (in Western Sahara) to fall into the hands of a sovereign entity under the direct influence of Iran, the ramifications could be ominous. But what is far more threatening would be the influence brought to bear on a moderate Morocco with its overwhelming control of the world’s food supply, surrounded by hostile and destabilizing Iranian proxies.”

According to Leiter, “Hezbollah is already deeply involved in West Africa, and the last thing the region needs is another dysfunctional state under the influence of the world’s most significant terror and illicit drug trade organization.”

“Morocco stands against the fanatical Islam exported by the ayatollahs and their proxies,” he said. Its battle against the Polisario and terrorism “is also Israel’s battle.”

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