As the Sudanese civil war grinds on, U.S.-Saudi efforts to broker a ceasefire have had limited success. Both sides in the Sudanese conflict have developed good working relationships with Israel’s governmental and nongovernmental agencies, and it is fair to assume that once the battle is over, the country will put its normalization with Israel back on track, no matter what the outcome. There is little Israel can do in the meantime except encourage reconciliation and offer to mediate between the sides.
The situation provides Israel with an opportunity to focus on the expansion of the normalization process with additional countries on the African continent. But while pursuing further agreements, Israel must work to solidify and expand, in particular, its existing Abraham Accords agreement with Morocco.
The genius of the Abraham Accords was their formal expression of what was sensed by Arab states in the region but had been left unspoken. Mutual national interests far exceed the Palestinian issue in their importance. Partnership and collaboration in stopping the spread of radicalism through the long arm of Iran are top among them.
This overriding interest brings us to Israel-Morocco relations and, more specifically, the need for Israel to act with clarity and determination in recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. This essay intends to explain why.
The Status of Western Sahara
The United States recognized the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Morocco over Western Sahara in Dec. 2020. In doing so, the Trump administration reversed decades of U.S. policy, which had supported the U.N.-backed plan for a referendum on the territory’s future status.
The UAE, another key Abraham Accords partner, has led efforts to recognize Morocco’s territorial integrity internationally, and dozens of countries have followed suit.
Conversely, the E.U. has said it will continue to work with Morocco on issues of common interest, such as migration and security. Still, it will not recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.
As part of the Abraham Accords, Israel agreed to recognize Moroccan sovereignty by opening a consulate in the area, but has yet to follow through on its commitment. Economic and military cooperation between the two countries has grown exponentially, and the potential for further growth is considerable, but Israel must go further.
Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara have deep historical roots, dating back to the Almoravid dynasty of the 11th century. Shortly after Morocco achieved independence in 1956, King Mohammed expressed the Moroccan connection to Western Sahara, which world powers had recognized throughout the centuries as an integral part of Morocco.
But when Spanish colonization of Western Sahara, which began in the mid-19th century, ended with the Madrid Accords in 1975, the international community held Morocco’s claims in abeyance, sowing discord and confusion.
Following Spain’s decolonization and the ensuing accords, the territory was occupied by Moroccan and Mauritanian troops. The U.N. did not recognize the Madrid Accords. The same year, the International Court of Justice declared that neither Morocco nor Mauritania had territorial sovereignty over Western Sahara.
In 1976, the Polisario Front, which had already been established in 1973 to oppose the Spanish occupation, was recognized by the U.N. as the “only legitimate representative” of the Sahrawi people. The Polisario then leveraged the U.N. declaration to announce the establishment of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as an independent state.
A civil war ensued for over 15 years until a U.N.-brokered cease-fire was implemented in 1991. In 2007, Morocco presented a plan to grant autonomy to the SADR-held territory, which drew increasing European support over the years. In 2020, the Polisario broke the 29-year-old ceasefire with renewed terror attacks on Moroccan installations. In an effort led by Algeria, Cuba, Iran, Mauritania and Syria, a total of 46 countries have to date recognized the SADR.
Self-Determination Has Its Limits
The integrity of Western Sahara as Moroccan territory is challenged by the Sahrawi residents of the area, who claim the right to self-determination. The Sahrawi are nomads who wandered in and out of the area, making their claim of indigeneity tenuous. But even if the Sahrawi’s demand for self-determination rested on substantiated indigeneity, their demand for independence remains unsubstantiated and worthy of denial.
There is a dangerous calumny in the unqualified “right” of all claims to self-determination. The legally enshrined right of a people to self-determination was intended primarily to recognize the independence of emergent nations following the conclusion of World War II and the subsequent new world order. As empires collapsed and colonialism was disallowed, self-determination was intended to facilitate the evolution of statehood in countries that colonial powers had governed.
The Ottoman, Qing, British and Austria-Hungarian empires are long gone, and the need to balance self-determination with the right to territorial integrity as well as that of national interest should be self-evident. The blind application of uti possidetis juris, transforming internal colonial borders into international ones, despite the ethnic conflicts within those boundaries, has resulted in bloody and, in some cases, endless wars. The former Yugoslavia is a case in point.
There has also been a troubling inconsistency in its application. During the breakup of the Soviet Union, for example, the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia expressed their desire to join the Russian Federation rather than remain in Georgia. The same was true with Transnistria and Gagauzia regarding Moldova. It was explained to them that they did not have the same rights as the member countries of the USSR, nor the right to self-determination.
There is an existential need to balance support for self-determination with other conditions, such as national, regional and global security. On-demand self-determination will thrust the whole world into turmoil by putting existing borders on wheels. If all territories that have been annexed over the years were to be granted referendums for self-determination, the result would be chaos, an end to national borders as we know them. This is especially true regarding Africa, where multiple tribal identities with territorially-based cultures can lead to intractable internecine conflicts.
Self-Determination in Western Sahara
While the case against reflexive self-determination, in general, is strong, the case against a referendum as a manifestation of self-determination for the Sahrawi is stronger yet.
More than three-quarters of Western Sahara, an area greater in size than Great Britain, is controlled by Morocco, with the remainder under the domination of the Polisario Front. Approximately 650,000 people live in the area, two-thirds being Moroccan citizens. The remaining third are Sahrawis who identify with the Polisario.
Morocco has constructed a physical barrier known as the “Berm” to protect its citizens from terror attacks by the Polisario. The Berm, the longest and most fortified physical barrier in the world, is an approximately 2,700 kilometers-long (1,700 miles) sand wall running south to north through the area. It is over two meters high in most places, with radar masts, surveillance equipment and rapid deployment troops in bases at five-kilometer intervals.
Morocco is a country that represents Islamic moderation and built the Berm to protect its citizens from Islamic radicalism. It has a defense pact with the United States and enjoys extensive trade with Europe to its north, with which it is barely separated by the Straits of Gibraltar. To its west is the Atlantic Ocean, making it a gateway to the Mediterranean and Northern Africa.
Morocco’s land borders, though, are far less friendly. To its east, it shares a long border with Algeria, an ally of Iran, which directly threatens it militarily and through its support for Polisario separatism. Polisario headquarters are located in Tindouf, Algeria, where 100,000 Sahrawis live. Were the Polisario to achieve its goal, it would be nothing more than an Algerian puppet state contributing to strengthening an Iranian proxy with growing influence in countries across the sub-Sahara. Algeria’s military strength and ideological influence need to be mitigated, not augmented, and certainly not at the expense of a Western ally.
To the south, Morocco is bordered by Mauritania, presently governed by an Islamist-leaning regime that is hostile to Israel and the West and similarly needs no strengthening. What does need strengthening is the strong social and political strands of moderation in Mauritania that are endeavoring to move away from Algerian influences. An Algerian-backed mini-state at its border will weaken moderate and pro-Western forces in Mauritania, a victory for radical Islam that will be celebrated in Tehran.
Sahrawi independence is a contradiction in terms; separation from Morocco means dependency on Iran’s African axis.
The Polisario represents the lethal connection between separatism and terrorism, a legacy of Marxist-Leninist revolutionary movements now supported by Tehran. As part of its efforts to establish itself in the North African and Sahel region, the Iranian regime supplies the Polisario with anti-aircraft missiles and drones through the services of Algeria and Hezbollah. Together with the IRGC, Hezbollah is also training Polisario fighters. The Polisario itself has provided cover for Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a terrorist group that is active in the Sahel region.
The Hezbollah Connection
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.
Hezbollah has brought about the collapse of Lebanon’s economy, and its ally in crime, the Assad clan, has destroyed neighboring Syria, now also an ayatollah-supported regime. To replace the economies they shattered, they have turned their countries into narco-states, producing the global supply of Captagon—an amphetamine-based drug that has destroyed the lives of millions—in the Syrian cities of Homs and Aleppo and in the Bekaa Valley, a Hezbollah stronghold in Lebanon. These smuggling states are also favored routes for heroin, crystal meth and hashish. It is estimated that the Captagon trade alone is worth over a billion dollars a year.
Here’s where West Africa comes in. It is not only a destination for the exportation of the Iranian “revolution” but also for their drug trade. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has banned shipment from Lebanon in its Saudi-UAE-led efforts to curb the drug and weapons trade. As a result, Hezbollah is diverting illegal shipments via transit states to obscure the country of origin, with West Africa becoming the preferred option. The Lebanese diaspora in West African countries is also used to launder drug proceeds through trade in cocoa, coffee, diamonds and other raw materials.
Unsurprisingly, this widespread network of money laundering has been connected to weapons proliferation and organized crime, with the attendant corruption of government officials, industry and youth, crippling the potential of underdeveloped countries to grow their economies and improve the lives of their citizens.
“Thus, we have a perfect storm,” wrote Arab News journalist Baria Alamuddin, “with the narcotics trade being used to fund terrorism and para-militarism.” She poignantly continues about Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon, “In a dying nation where so many have lost the will to live, ‘Hizb Al-Shaitan’ has made deadly narcotics more affordable than baby milk.”
A referendum among a population dominated by the Polisario, influenced by Algeria and trained by Hezbollah, will weaken Moroccan moderation and strengthen Iranian radicalism in the region and beyond.
Securing Morocco to Secure Global Food Security
In addition to preventing the expansion of Iranian influence, there is another critical global angle to augmenting Morocco’s strength, including its sovereignty over Western Sahara—global food security.
The Russia-Ukraine war has brought to the fore just how precarious the globalization of food production has become. Both countries are among the biggest producers of wheat and Russia of fertilizer. Food prices were rising precipitously even before the Russian invasion, but the war triggered global disruptions in markets for crucial food crops and fertilizers, further threatening food security worldwide.
There are alternatives to wheat, but not fertilizer. Fertilizer is imperative for the entire agricultural industry, for everything we eat. The world’s population has quadrupled in the last 100 years because of the discovery of fertilizer at the beginning of the 20th century. The absence of fertilizer would mean that half the world’s current population would starve.
Fertilizer is produced from three components: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. While nitrogen is produced from natural gas, the other two elements are derived from the world’s mineral deposits, making their quantity finite. While it is estimated that there are sufficient phosphate deposits for hundreds of years to come, phosphorus is more limited. What is crucial to understand is that of the known phosphorous deposits, a full 72%, if not more, are found in Morocco, of which 10% is in Morocco’s southern provinces—that is, Western Sahara.
All monopolies in history pale compared to Morocco’s monopoly on phosphate rock. When one considers, for example, the centrality of Saudi Arabia to the oil industry, it must be borne in mind that they possess “only” 17% of the world’s known oil reserves. Yet so much of the world’s geopolitics in the 20th century has centered on the Gulf.
The implications of such a concentration of a critical component of the world’s food supply are sobering. Were 7% of the world’s known phosphorous deposits (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.
Iran’s quest for regional hegemony is deadly serious, conspicuous, consistent and sustained, and its notion of “region” is more global than local. Like a vicious malignancy, if it is not contained and defeated, it will spread and consume peoples and countries.
From Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2015 address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress to Israel’s on-the-ground security activities to inhibit Tehran’s military and terror adventures, Israel has taken the lead in curtailing the Iranian menace. It needs partners and Morocco is a partner. Morocco stands against the fanatical Islam exported by the ayatollahs and their proxies.
Morocco has thwarted many terrorist attacks against European countries by home-grown Islamists. Morocco’s battle against the Polisario and terrorism is also Israel’s battle.
For the sake of regional and global stability, the government of Israel should act immediately. The time to fully recognize Morocco’s southern provinces as an indivisible part of the country, along with its autonomy plan for the Sahrawi, is long overdue.
Originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.