Morocco Joins List of Arab Nations to Begin Normalizing Relations With Israel

WASHINGTON — The White House said on Thursday that Morocco had agreed to begin normalizing relations with Israel, becoming the fourth Arab state this fall to do so and advancing a major foreign goal for President Trump as he nears the end of his administration.

An announcement also recognized Morocco’s claim of sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara.

But government officials in Morocco conspicuously avoided committing to an opening of embassies or consulates in each other’s countries, pledging only to “resume diplomatic relations as soon as possible,” after Mr. Trump announced what he described as “a massive breakthrough” for Middle East peace.

Morocco would follow Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates in agreeing to set aside generations of hostilities toward the Jewish state as part of a campaign to stabilize the Middle East and North Africa.

Briefing reporters in Washington, Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law, said the agreement called for Morocco to open full diplomatic relations and formalize economic ties with Israel. It will also allow overflights of its air space and direct commercial flights to Moroccan airports from Tel Aviv, Mr. Kushner said.

He said more than one million Israelis are descended from those who originally lived in Morocco.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel celebrated the announcement at a prearranged, televised Hanukkah lighting ceremony at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, accompanied by David M. Friedman, the American ambassador to Israel.

“There have been strong ties between Morocco and the Jewish people throughout the entire modern era,” Mr. Netanyahu said. He predicted “a very warm peace,” given that Israel and Morocco have maintained close, if informal, relations for more than half a century.

Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu made the so-called Abraham Accords — normalized relations between Israel and Muslim states that long have been aligned with the cause of the Palestinians — a focus of their respective campaigns to hold onto power.

But Mr. Trump lost the November election to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., and the Israeli prime minister is potentially facing a new round of elections in Israel amid a paralyzed government there.

Thursday’s agreement also hands Morocco’s monarch, King Mohammed VI, a long-demanded prize: American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara territory.

The United Nations and much of the rest of the world refused to affirm Morocco’s claim over the area, and the United States had supported a 1991 cease-fire between the kingdom and the Western Sahara’s pro-independence Polisario Front.

After a border incident last month, the Polisario declared war on Morocco, shattering a three-decade cease-fire and threatening a full-blown military conflict in the disputed desert territory in northwest Africa.

Mr. Kushner said that recognizing the disputed area as part of Morocco could give the members of the independence movement a “better opportunity to live a better life.”

“This is an issue that’s been out there for a long time and quite frankly, there’s just been no progress on a resolution,” he said. He said the agreement “can possibly break the logjam” to help advance the issues.

But many Moroccans expressed outrage over an agreement that appeared to ignore their longstanding sympathies for Palestinians in that conflict with Israel.

“Not sure this is the best decision #Morocco should make right now domestically,” Mohamed Daadaoui, a Moroccan academic, wrote on Twitter. He also noted that Morocco and Israel already had economic, military and cultural ties.

The deal is likely to be highly popular in Israel, which has a sizable population of Jews of Moroccan descent who mostly arrived in the 1950s. Many Israelis have visited Morocco in recent years, traveling via third countries but entering on Israeli passports.

The two countries established liaison offices in 1994 in the wake of the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements known as the Oslo Accords, but they closed down after the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 2000.

If the two countries reopen diplomatic missions in each other’s countries, Israel’s new agreement with Morocco would be similar to the accords that the Trump administration helped broker with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in September.

By contrast, Sudan has stopped short of declaring full and normalized relations with Israel and recently threatened to withdraw from the agreement if Congress does not give it immunity from terrorism lawsuits that families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks want to bring against the country for harboring Osama bin Laden years before the attacks.

The Trump administration had long hoped Saudi Arabia would join the push for normalizing relations with Israel. Mr. Kushner said “that notion was unthinkable” before Mr. Trump took office in 2016.

“Now we have peace sprouting in the Middle East,” Mr. Kushner said. “The fruits of these efforts have become very apparent, but we also believe there is a lot more fruit to come.”

So far, however, Saudi Arabia has insisted that more progress must come first on peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Lara Jakes reported from Washington, Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem and Aida Alami from Rabat, Morocco.

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