U.S. Embassy Jerusalem, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons


The Cosmopolitan Globalists get together and bicker about the significance of Israel’s deal with Morocco.

After Spain’s hasty exit from the Western Sahara in 1975, Morocco and Mauritania jointly invaded the territory, setting off a sixteen-year dispute and the large-scale displacement of the local population.

Mauritania withdrew in 1979. But Morocco kept going—and has been there ever since.

In 1976, a Western Saharan liberation movement, the Polisario Front, created a quasi-governmental structure in refugee camps in Algeria, near the Algerian town and military base of Tindouf, and waged a guerrilla war against both Morocco and Mauritania.

Mauritania signed a peace agreement with the Polisario in 1979 and granted recognition to the newly-formed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

… my principal source of knowledge about Western Sahara is that I spent a week there on a press junket sponsored by the Moroccan government. It was ethically indefensible, journalistically, so I never wrote about it. I accepted the offer hoping that Algeria would offer me a counter-junket—and perhaps even help me get access to the camps in Tindouf. But Algeria and the Polisario were not nearly as keen to win me over as Morocco was.

Morocco did not.

The war was only brought to a ceasefire in 1991 with the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force—MINURSO—in the territory. The conflict has thus far defied diplomatic efforts to resolve it. The ceasefire collapsed last November after Morocco sent troops into no-man’s-land to reopen a road to Mauritania.

The United Nations considers the Polisario to be the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people and defines the territory as “non-self-governing.”

Morocco considers the territory “Morocco.”

The Polisario is considered anathema, of course, in the parts of Western Sahara under Moroccan control.

The above is, obviously, a simplified version of events.

Claire Berlinski and Arun Kapil, Paris; Judith Levy, Ra’anana, Israel; and Piero Castellano, Genoa

Claire: Arun, the Cosmopolitan Globalists would like your views about the rapprochement between Morocco and Israel, and the role of the United States—i.e., Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. Particularly in light of your knowledge of Algeria, which is quite extensive.

Arun: Neither of these developments have been warmly received by Algerians, needless to say.

Claire: I should imagine not. Moroccans must be delighted beyond words, though. Bet they never imagined a US President would say, “Okay, fine—just take it.”

… I feel I’m sensing just a bit of the sad shaking of the head of so many other people around the world at the way the Palestinian cause has been sacrificed on the altar of Realpolitik. But that’s not how I see it at all. Quite the opposite. It is not the Palestinians but the Palestinians’ useless leadership who have been thrown for a loop.

Arun: As for the Israel-Morocco aspect of the matter, the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the two states is normal and hardly necessitated US mediation, as they have enjoyed a close, unofficial relationship since the early 1960s—which became official in 1994 with the opening of liaison offices in their respective capitals (Tel Aviv for the Moroccan one). The liaison office was closed by Morocco in 2000, during the second intifada, but this did not fundamentally change anything. The two countries have enjoyed six decades of close military and intelligence cooperation, probably the most steadfast secret relationship between Israel and any Arab state.

Morocco’s rich Jewish past and present  is obviously the bridge between the two countries, with Morocco valorizing and promoting that heritage. Morocco had, along with Iraq, the largest pre-1948 Jewish population in the Arab world (around 250 thousand); but, unlike Iraq, Moroccan Jews emigrated pacifically (albeit surreptitiously in the decade after 1956) to Israel, with no pressure to leave nor flight from persecution. Israelis with personal or family ties to Morocco (between ten and fifteen percent of Israel’s Jewish population) maintain an affectionate relationship with the country and freely travel there. This is unique for Israelis with roots in MENA lands, even though the status of Jews in Morocco to the early 20th century was not significantly better than in Eastern Europe. For this reason alone, it makes total sense that the two states would have diplomatic and commercial relations, with tourism, direct flights, and all.

As for the Palestinians, the Israel-Morocco rapprochement won’t change a thing. It will further comfort Netanyahu and those around him in their calculation that Israel can normalize with Arab states—as it already has with the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan—without conceding a thing to the Palestinians. It is increasingly evident, however, that no state—not even a powerful one like the US—nor coalition of states can compel Israel to make substantial concessions to the Palestinians that it doesn’t want to make, either because it believes concessions will compromise its security or because they will be rejected by Israeli public opinion. When I visited the Beit El settlement on the West Bank in 2009 and talked to people there, it became clear to me that no Israeli government will ever get those settlers out of there. Were it to try, there would be refusal and resistance, and this would be the case with just about every settlement in the occupied territories. Israel is content with the status quo, as are most Arab states in regard to the Palestinians, alas.

Claire: I wouldn’t say Israel is “content” with the status quo; I would say most Israelis see no alternative to it. The most common view among Israelis is that withdrawal from the West Bank would turn it into another Gaza. Growingly, this seems to be the view of most Arab states, too.

Arun:  The normalization with Israel by Arab states will not necessarily prejudice the Palestinians, it may even work to their benefit, with the UAE and other Gulf states financially supporting the Palestinian Authority and investing in it. This may be part of the deal with the Israelis, who will have an interest in that. The American aspect of the Morocco-Israel deal is another matter.

… I can see that the splendor of Moroccan lobbying efforts worked pretty well with Claire’s imprinting.

Claire: Yes, this is a mysterious development. I’m very eager to hear your thoughts.

Arun: Not only was the US role superfluous—it was thoroughly unnecessary—but the US got nothing whatever out of it. No tangible US interest is advanced by Israel and Morocco reopening liaison offices and establishing direct flights.

Claire: Not quite. Certainly, the US has always believed it has an interest in Arab-Israeli peace; every Administration since Truman has thought so. Whether in fact the conflict is as central as American planners believed is another question, but let’s grant that this has long been a US policy objective. That said, the US has a much greater interest in the stability of the MENA region, and God knows what the consequences of impulsively recognizing Morocco’s claims might be.

Arun: The US has certainly had an interest in Arab-Israeli peace but none of the four Arab states that have just normalized have ever been in a state of war with Israel; and in the case of the UAE and Morocco, the informal relationship has already been extensive and long-standing. And Sudan remains a source of instability for reasons that have nothing to do with Israel. Trump was simply doing Netanyahu’s bidding, to reinforce the latter’s election prospects and further solidify Trump’s evangelical base as he tries to stage an autogolpe before January 20th.

Claire: You think? From all the reporting I’ve seen, it was even less strategic than that: Trump did it to piss off Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) who—curiously—is the Polisario’s most ardent enthusiast in Congress. The Tel Aviv-based reporter Barak Ravid, at least, reported in Axios that Jared Kushner and special envoy Avi Berkowitz had been speaking with the Moroccan government for years about normalizing relations with Israel in exchange for recognition of the Western Sahara. He claims Kushner, Berkowitz and Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita reached a deal more than a year ago, but Inhofe and John Bolton vehemently opposed it. Trump needed Inhofe’s support so he shot it down. Then Trump and Inhofe—again, according to Axios—fell out over the National Defense Authorization Act. Trump supposedly wanted Inhofe (who’s Chairman of the Armed Service Committee, in case anyone forgot) to include provisions to repeal protections for social media companies, and he wanted Inhofe to indulge him on keeping the names of bases named after Confederates. Inhofe refused on both points; Trump started blasting him on Twitter; and—again, according to Ravid—Kushner and Berkowitz saw this as their chance: They brought it up with Trump again and he agreed. Just to piss off Inhofe.

Ravid also reported, interestingly, that Netanyahu was not happy: Ravid’s unclear about why, and Netanyahu’s office has denied it, but apparently “sources close to Netanyahu” didn’t like the language of the deal, for some reason. But Inhofe, obviously, was infuriated. So at least Trump achieved that important strategic goal—

Arun: —What I say about Trump humoring the evangelicals and giving Bibi a coup de pouce is admittedly idle speculation on my part. But there is simply no net benefit for the US in the Israel-Morocco deal. This cannot be considered a foreign policy triumph for Trump. Nor are the UAE-Bahrain-Sudan deals. No tangible American interest was advanced and Trump’s mediation was not needed (except maybe in the case of Sudan, though why should the US care one way or another if Sudan recognizes Israel?). Recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara is a big foreign policy blunder and setback for the US: It sets a terrible precedent, signaling to other states that they can get away with land-grabs, cf. West Bank, Northern Cyprus, Kashmir. The US thus becomes the first Western state (Albania excepted, if that counts) to recognize Morocco’s annexation of the Western Sahara. À propos, one notes with interest the left-right consensus on Trump’s action among the handful of US academic and policy specialists of the Western Sahara question.

Claire: Indeed, and one is baffled by it. I would expect the left to be pro-Polisario and anti-Morocco, but the right?

Arun: For example, on the left, the engagé University of San Francisco political scientist (and friend) Stephen Zunes—co-author of a book on the subject—fired off a Washington Post op-ed arguing that “Trump’s deal on Morocco’s Western Sahara annexation risks more global conflict.” Human Rights Watch—which is not stricto sensu on the left (though I’d be most surprised if a single one of its American staff members did not vote for Biden-Harris)—issued a communiqué stating, “US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty doesn’t change territory’s status.” In the Uber-gauchiste Jacobin, Madrid-based writer Eoghan Gilmartin wrote, “Donald Trump has just traded Western Sahara like a Victorian colonialist.” But the reactions from Republicans are particularly interesting.

Claire: —Yes. Just not the people I’d expect to be all warm and fuzzy about the Polisario, you know?

Arun: James A. Baker III, who was the UN Secretary-General’s personal envoy for Western Sahara from 1997 to 2004, penned a Washington Post op-ed bluntly stating, “Trump’s recognition of Western Sahara is a serious blow to diplomacy and international law.” John Bolton, who knows the Western Sahara dossier comme sa poche, placed a strongly-worded piece in Foreign Policy: “Biden must reverse course on Western Sahara: Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty dangerously undermines decades of carefully crafted U.S. policy.”

Claire: Knows it comme sa poche? What’s interesting is his claim here:

Trump’s insouciance gave the State Department bureaucracy exactly what it has wanted since Resolution 690 first encountered stiff Moroccan resistance within months of its adoption nearly three decades ago. Rabat had argued that losing the Western Sahara referendum would destabilize its monarchy, and the State Department’s bureaucrats lapped it up. 

Certainly, it’s true that the default position among career officials at State is that it’s better to manage the status quo in Western Sahara than risk unsettling the balance between Morocco and Algeria by trying to resolve it. Might they be right? Bolton has, historically—how to put this—not necessarily grasped that sometimes an imperfect but reasonably stable situation is preferable to a sudden sharp shock to the status quo, however well-intentioned. If you get my drift.

Arun: Another Polisario supporter way out there on the Republican right-wing is the longtime Washington conservative operative David Keene, who also happens to be Algeria’s well-remunerated Washington lobbyist—

Claire: —At least that’s explicable: He’s in it for the money. Jeune Afrique claims they pay him 30,000 Euros a month. (They also note that he’s the former head of the NRA.)—

Arun: —He ran an op-ed in the Washington Times explaining “Why Trump’s deal with Morocco is immoral and shamefully cynical.” “The people of the Western Sahara had no say in it’s making, another blow against self-determination.” I find it intriguing that these right-wing Republicans are so harshly critical of Morocco, which has always been such a faithful ally of the United States and the West—

Claire: —So do I. Morocco is literally the United States’ oldest ally. And Cuba has been the Polisario’s biggest plumper. The Carter Administration pumped military aid into Morocco because it feared an independent Sahrawi state would represent the definitive expansion of Soviet and Cuban influence in the area. Reagan pursued the same policy. The intimate connection between the Polisario Front and Cuba is hardly a secret, right?

Arun: —and favorable toward Algeria, which has had correct-to-good relations with the US, but tilted toward the Eastern bloc during the Cold War, even though nominally it was a leader of the non-aligned movement. So why are they so supportive of the Polisario? It’s a national liberation movement identified with the tiersmondiste camp. It always has a large stand at the French Communist Party’s annual Fête de l’Humanité.

Arun: Why do these America-First conservatives care so much about a sparsely and exclusively Muslim-populated patch of desert in Africa?

Claire: Exactly, it’s weird. And frankly, even the European left is sick of the Polisario. Paris is squarely in Morocco’s corner. But Jeune Afrique may well be right: It may be that Inhofe sees this as a way to detach Algeria from Moscow.

Arun: The European left—insofar as such a thing exists—has forgotten about the Polisario. As for Algeria and Moscow, there is nothing to detach anyone from here. Algeria is no one’s client state, has never been, and will never be. Perhaps the Polisario has had an effective US lobbying operation?

Claire: Come on, it wouldn’t be the Polisario that has an effective US lobbying operation, it would be Algeria—and Algeria does have an effective lobbying operation, as does Morocco

Arun: —Christopher Ross, in my opinion, offers the most reliable establishment commentary on Trump’s action. He served as the UN Secretary General’s personal envoy on Western Sahara from 2009 to 2017. Ross was a US Foreign Service officer, spending most of his career in the Arab world (he’s a fluent Arabic-speaker), including as US ambassador to Algeria from 1988 to 1991. Those were the years I spent in Algiers, and I spoke to him a number of times about the political situation in Algeria. We were much on the same page, particularly about the rise of the Islamist FIS). Ross represented the best of the US Foreign Service. Voilà his reaction, posted on Facebook:

This foolish and ill-considered decision flies in the face of the US commitment to the principles of the non-acquisition of territory by force and the right of peoples to self-determination, both enshrined in the UN Charter. It’s true that we have ignored these principles when it comes to Israel and others, but this does not excuse ignoring them in Western Sahara and incurring significant costs to ourselves in terms of regional stability and security and our relations with Algeria.

The argument that some in Washington have been making for decades to the effect that an independent state in Western Sahara would be another failed mini-state is false. Western Sahara is as large as Great Britain and has ample resources of phosphates, fisheries, precious metals, and tourism based on wind surfing and desert excursions. It is much better off than many mini-states whose establishment the US has supported. The Polisario Liberation Front of Western Sahara has demonstrated in setting up a government-in-exile in the Western Saharan refugee camps in southwestern Algeria that it is capable of running a government in an organized and semi-democratic way. The referendum proposal that the Polisario put forward in 2007 foresees very close privileged relations with Morocco in the event of independence. It has answered the claim that it could not possibly defend the vast territory of Western Sahara from terrorist or other threats by stating that it would request the help of others until its own forces were fully in place.

It is true that the US has always expressed support for both for the UN facilitated negotiating process and, since 2007, for Morocco’s autonomy plan as ONE possible basis for negotiation. The word ONE is crucial because it implies that other outcomes might emerge and thus ensures that the Polisario stays in the negotiating process instead of retreating into a resumption of the open warfare that prevailed from 1976 to 1991. It was in that year that Morocco and the Polisario agreed to a UN settlement plan that promised a referendum in exchange for a ceasefire. Thirteen years were spent trying to reach agreement on a list of eligible voters, the last seven of them under the supervision of James Baker. In the end, these efforts failed because Morocco decided that a referendum was contrary to its (claims of) sovereignty and, in doing so, got no push back from the Security Council. In 2004, this caused Baker to resign.

The Security Council then substituted direct negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario as an alternative approach. Chaired by three successive UN envoys from the Netherlands (van Walsum), the U.S. (yours truly), and Germany (Kohler), thirteen rounds of face-to-face talks in the presence of Algeria and Mauritania took place from 2007 to 2019. To date, these efforts have also failed because neither party has been prepared to alter its position in the name of compromise. With the resignation of the most recent envoy in 2019 “for health reasons” but more likely out of disgust for Morocco’s lack of respect and efforts to impede his work (as they did with me), the UN Secretary-General is looking for yet another envoy. Those approached to date have demurred, probably because they recognize that Morocco wants someone who will in effect become its advocate instead of remaining neutral and that, as a result, they would be embarking on ‘mission impossible.’

If we are ever to arrive at a settlement, it will be through a drawn-out negotiating process of some kind. President Trump’s decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty destroys any incentive for the Polisario to remain in that process. It also threatens US relations with Algeria, which supports the right of Western Saharans to decide their own future through a referendum, and undercuts the growth of our existing ties in energy, trade, and security and military cooperation. In sum, President Trump’s decision ensures continued tension, instability, and disunion in North Africa.

Pour l’info, my principal source of knowledge on the Western Sahara is Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War, by Tony Hodges. It’s a terrific book, the first to read on the subject, in which one learns, among many other things, that Morocco has no legitimate claim to the Western Sahara—historically or legally—and that the Sahrawi people, historically mostly pastoral nomads, were largely sedentarized by the early 1970s, had developed a national consciousness under Spanish colonialism, and possessed all the attributes of a nation deserving self-determination.

ClairePour l’info, my principal source of knowledge about Western Sahara is that I spent a week there on a press junket sponsored by the Moroccan government. It was ethically indefensible, journalistically, so I never wrote about it. I accepted the offer hoping that Algeria would offer me a counter-junket—and perhaps even help me get access to the camps in Tindouf. But Algeria and the Polisario were not nearly as keen to win me over as Morocco was.

So I can absolutely, personally, attest to the splendor of Moroccan lobbying efforts. I can also say that I was well aware I was being shown what the Moroccan government wanted me to see. But I did manage to slip the minders and do some exploring on my own. My impression—and it was just that, an impression, not a formally conducted poll—was that people there didn’t give a damn whether the territory was controlled by Morocco or the Polisario. They wanted jobs. This was in, I think, 2010?

Overwhelmingly, people told me their biggest concern was employment, not self-determination. Were they telling me this because they feared I might be an informant? I doubt it. I heard similar things in Mauritania, just this past year. Sahrawis and Mauritanians struck me as quite similar, culturally—and be they “pastoral nomads” or “sedentarized” it would be a mistake to think of their “national consciousness” as something akin to European nationalism. There’s centuries of tribal history. Most Sahrawi tribes, historically, have and continue to identify with Morocco. Moroccan nationalists in the 40s and 50s struggled to liberate both the Rif and Spanish-occupied Sahara. “Sahrawi” is a geographic expression. The people living there aren’t distinct in any significant way from everyone else in the Maghreb—not that I could see, anyway. Same language, ethnicity, origin, culture, religion.

Arun: NB: Colonialism shapes identity. Whether or not Morocco will ever surrender the Western Sahara—I have my doubts—is another matter, but the conflict remains. The parallel between the Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara and the Israelis in the West Bank-Gaza is evident (Moroccans naturally go ballistic over the comparison). There are similarities and clear differences (e.g. the cultural proximity of Moroccans and Sahraouis is obviously closer), but on the level of human rights violations, the left-wing Stephen Zunes has asserted on social media that these are “much worse” in the Western Sahara than in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Claire: I don’t doubt it, but for what it’s worth, life is worse under the Polisario. The Moroccan government arranged for us to speak to refugees from the Polisario—as they would, naturally—and their stories were horrifying. I would have liked to have written about them, but since I couldn’t get the other side of the story, I couldn’t do it without, in effect, becoming a shill for the Moroccan government. It’s too bad, because I believed them. I am not in any doubt that conditions in those camps are horrifying. The dissidents to whom I spoke were, of course, produced so that I might write something to support the Moroccan narrative, but I’m sure of this: They weren’t actors. I’ve some experience of distinguishing between “government flaks” and “dissidents who’ve been tortured.” My hosts were the former. The refugees were the latter. The Polisario has no business lecturing anyone about human rights.

In any event, Trump’s deal is meaningless. The Western Sahara issue is not part of the Arab-Israeli peace process and won’t be resolved by a silly transactional deal in which Morocco recognizes Israel. It’s a Maghrebi issue.

The US has no coherent position.  Beyond that, people in Washington seem to parrot either Moroccan or Algerian lobbyists, depending who’s paying them better.

The real question is how a post-Bouteflika Algeria might respond if the Biden Administration made a serious attempt to resolve the conflict. I don’t expect his Administration will have the bandwidth, but what if it tried? You’d have a much better idea than I would: I don’t have much of a feeling for what’s happening in Algeria. Look, we’re adults: We both know Algeria’s interest in creating an “independent Saharawi state” has nothing to do with high-minded American ideals about national self-determination. This is a contest for hegemony in the Maghreb and the Sahel. Obviously, it would be best for the entire region—and the Sahrawi people—if Morocco and Algeria could come to some kind of agreement roughly along the lines Morocco has proposed.

It could be that Trump’s decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty destroys all incentive for the Polisario (and by extension Algeria) to negotiate. But not necessarily. It seems to me that as with many other dumb things Trump has done—like withdrawing from the WHO—a skillful Biden Administration might exploit it for leverage to bring Algeria (and by extension the Polisario) to the negotiating table.

I don’t know. What do you think?

Arun: The big issue for the Biden administration here will be if it goes back on Trump’s recognition and if not, what it does about the consulate in Laayoune. I really doubt that this will be any kind of priority for the Biden administration. And the Algerians are not likely to appreciate the Americans sticking their nose into this affair (independently of the United Nations).

Claire: Probably not, I suppose. But it’s a shame: A resolution to the conflict would be a great benefit to all concerned. And the suffering involved—as you point out—exceeds anything happening in the more mediagenic West Bank.

Judith: One point, if I may: Israel evacuated Gaza in 2005. It sounds a bit silly (especially in the course of such a knowledgeable discussion) to draw an analogy between the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank/Gaza. Say what you will about the West Bank (where the analogy is also somewhat strained, as you noted), but we’ve been out of Gaza for fifteen years. We might as well never have left, as most people on Earth are stoutly convinced we’re still there.

I am also struck by the dismissiveness you both express toward the recent rapprochements between Israel and the four (four!) Arab states. I’m seeing this here in Israel as well to a certain extent, and it’s an interesting phenomenon. I’d argue that these rapprochements are in fact highly significant and should be acknowledged as such; and also that the somewhat sniffy dismissal they’ve been given by much if not most of the Western world reflects (in part) a general discomfiture at the characters who managed to pull this thing off (not just Trump et al., but Bibi too). More on that in a second.

In the case of Morocco, it is of course true that we’ve had a solid, if tacit, relationship for a long time. But now it’s out in the open, and that is the point. I understand what you and Arun were saying—that from an American standpoint the normalization between Jerusalem and Rabat doesn’t accomplish much, and that all four agreements are underwhelming since none of the four was in a state of war with us—but I think you’re underestimating the significance of the public disclosure of these relationships.

To get one point out of the way: Emirati airplanes are landing at Ben Gurion (or were, before the new lockdown) and Israelis are (were) happily posting selfies of themselves and smiling Emiratis standing next to piles of Israeli fruit in Dubai grocery stores—but I understand that while this is a big deal for us (or at least some of us), it doesn’t mean much to anyone else in the world. (And it is a big deal. It’s not easy being the Chess Club kid whom the popular kids secretly hire to help them write their term papers but who are shunned in public for decades. From a psychological standpoint, this is a sea change on both sides—but again, that doesn’t render this important for you or Arun or anyone else.)

There are two interconnected reasons why these deals do in fact matter: They change the dynamic toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians (to which you both alluded, but I would suggest not quite from the right angle); and the Gulf State agreements in particular throw a giant monkey wrench into Iran’s hegemonic plans for the region. The latter is now a critical strategic goal not just for Israel but for the Sunni Arab world, now that the US has effectively thrown in the towel.

Regarding the first: It is enormously significant that Arab states are now signaling through these deals that they will no longer allow the satisfying of their own self-interest to be made contingent upon the prior satisfaction of Palestinian self-interest. Granted, the Arab world’s willingness to elevate the Palestinian cause in that way for so long did reflect a policy of self-interest, insofar as it was used as a smokescreen to rally popular support when needed and conceal ills ranging from domestic mismanagement to flat-out tyranny. But the equation no longer adds up for them: What they stand to gain by allying with Israel now outweighs what they stand to gain by continuing to tout the Palestinian party line.

And the thing the Sunni (or Sunni-ruled) states now stand to gain—beyond the lucrative joint ventures, technological and academic exchanges, tourism boosts, and so on, which were always on the table but were never in the past sufficiently tempting—is a powerful new ally in the effort to halt the Islamic Republic of Iran’s hegemonic drive for domination of the Muslim world. One could argue that the uniting of Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel as a common force against Iran is not necessarily the one to bet on, particularly with the US now tilting back in the other direction; but the point is that this is an opening that allows more Arab states to take the same step—as, indeed, two of them quickly did.

As for the fate of the Palestinians in the wake of these deals, while you and Arun are looking at it reasonably fairly I feel I’m sensing just a bit of the sad shaking of the head of so many other people around the world at the way the Palestinian cause has been sacrificed on the altar of Realpolitik. But that’s not how I see it at all. Quite the opposite. It is not the Palestinians but the Palestinians’ useless leadership who have been thrown for a loop by these developments. This is a positive step, not a negative one, because the muscle behind their leadership’s approach to negotiation-as-extortion has withered. Now that they can no longer make preposterous demands (i.e., that we essentially commit national suicide) in the sure knowledge that they will be backed up by a Muslim united front, we can make a deal. Whether this will actually happen or not depends on many things that cannot be predicted (primarily what will happen when Abbas dies), but there is new potential for positive movement between Israel and the Palestinians that did not exist before.

Regarding the second significance of the deals—the thwarting of Iran—the strategic importance of this to the Sunni Arab world cannot be overstated. American obliviousness not only to the fact of Iranian hegemonic ambitions over the Muslim world but to the violence against Muslims that those ambitions have entailed is maddening beyond belief—and I’m saying that as a Jewish American-Israeli, so you can imagine how it must feel to Sunni Muslims in Iraq, say, whose family members were mown down by Soleimani’s shock troops at the behest of Tehran. We are perceived as paranoid or, if not that, certainly unhelpful for considering Iran an existential threat, even though the regime has made its intentions for us abundantly clear for more than 40 years.

Israel’s regular air strikes on Iranian positions on the Syrian border are viewed not only by Israelis but also by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as in their interest, as Israel is taking steps to inhibit Tehran’s accomplishment of a continuous Shiite crescent all the way to the Mediterranean. The Iranian regime is a profound threat that has brought Israel together with Gulf States that have watched Washington’s gradual retreat from the region, and its soon-to-be resuscitated relations with Tehran, with great concern. The big smiles on the White House lawn projected not only the dawning of a new era with regard to Israel’s position in the region but a warning to Iran, which will now have to recalibrate its tactics as it pursues its ultimate goal.

To follow up on the point about the personalities involved in the making of the Arab-Israeli deals: I can’t help but wonder whether the reflexive dismissal of this historic shift by the educational and journalistic elites reflects a degree of social (rather than political) bias. If some oracle had predicted at the start of 2020 that the year would end with Israeli peace agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, that oracle would have been suspected of a career-destroying optimism. (She’d also be fired for not foreseeing the COVID crisis.) The agreements are collectively a major achievement and would certainly have been hailed as such had pretty much anyone else pulled them off. But it is inconceivable to the cognoscenti that anyone as boorish and politically inept as Trump could possibly have engineered a significant change for the better in so intractable a part of the world; ergo, it is not such a change. It’s entirely possible that Trump accomplished it for terrible reasons, as you and Arun suggest; but that does not mitigate the value of the accomplishment itself.

What makes this so interesting is that the Israeli cognoscenti (i.e., the academic and journalistic elites, which are, as they are everywhere, overwhelmingly leftist) feel exactly the same way, only about Bibi rather than Trump. (Well, about Trump too, but they could laugh at Trump—Bibi appalls them to the core.) The loathing this class feels toward Bibi is precisely the same visceral, emotional, stomach-turning revulsion that that class in the US exhibits toward Trump, and they look askance at Israeli Bibi fans exactly the same way the American and European elites look at Trump supporters. Do you, as a card-carrying member of both the academic and journalistic elites, feel you would have been as dismissive of the Arab-Israeli peace agreements if they had been accomplished by, say, President Obama, or President Hillary Clinton? Perhaps you would, in which case I stand down. But I can’t help but wonder.

Claire: Actually, Arun and I have bickered about the Gaza-West Bank point. But I want to keep our focus on Western Sahara.

As for the significance of these deals, you’ve made the critical point yourself. It’s all in this sentence: “The latter is now a critical strategic goal not just for Israel but for the Sunni Arab world, now that the US has effectively thrown in the towel.”

In fact, it’s all in the last eight words of that sentence.

Peace agreements, wherever they are and whatever the cause, are to be celebrated. I do not give Trump credit for these agreements, however. This is not because of the visceral, emotional, stomach-turning revulsion I feel for him, though surely I feel that. It’s because I agree with you: These agreements are taking place because the US has thrown in the towel.

Who exactly threw in the towel? Well, I’d argue it was Obama and Trump, serially, but certainly, the election of Trump made it abundantly clear. Goodbye, United States.

“The Iranian regime,” you say, “is a profound threat that has brought Israel together with Gulf States that have watched Washington’s gradual retreat from the region.” Yes. I agree. Why would I give Trump credit for that? Why would you? You’re an American, too. Do you not sense something deeply disturbing about Washington’s retreat—not gradual, but precipitous—from the world?

The Gulf States now know, for sure, that the US isn’t going to do what the US did when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. No matter what. That US is gone. So of course they’re looking desperately for new allies. I mean, they’re incapable of subduing Yemen on their own. Who else could it be? It’s not going to be Europe, right? And China’s on Iran’s sideRussia? Give me a break: How do you think Tehran nearly accomplished a continuous Shiite crescent all the way to the Mediterranean?

Israel is the logical choice. Israelis clearly know which end of a gun to shoot from; and unlike some regional hegemons we could mention, they can distinguish Iran from Iraq on a map. So the up side: You get to take selfies with smiling Emiratis standing next to piles of Israeli fruit. The down side: You’re on your own against Iran, China, and possibly Russia, too—and your allies are the Emiratis.

As for Morocco? Yes, they hate Iran. They think they’re heretical swine. But Moroccans have got their hands full—especially since we may have just touched off a very bloody battle for hegemony over the Maghreb and Sahel, but let’s hope not. Still: They’re busy, one way or another. They’ll be no special use to you at all, beyond the usual eager cooperation to help round up al Qaeda and Shia heretics. If “allies against Iran—and China—and Russia, too” is the goal, you could have made peace with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and reaped roughly the same rewards.

That said, Morocco is in my view an excellent country and it’s great to make peace with Moroccans. Americans have always been at peace with Moroccans. Our first-ever ally. We should love them more than we do, I think. They’re super philo-semitic, too, apart from their Islamists. Everywhere I went, Moroccans absolutely knocked themselves out to tell me how much they loved Jews.

(Then again, that happens whenever I visit Austria—and frankly, it creeps me out a bit. “Indifference” is the attitude I prefer to Jewishness.)

Piero: I can see that the splendor of Moroccan lobbying efforts worked pretty well with Claire’s imprinting. I recognize most of what she says as well-founded, but also biased.

Of course people in Western Sahara care about jobs, not politics. People in Casablanca do too. I didn’t see any reference in the article to Gdeim Izik, which many observers consider the first (swiftly and brutally suppressed) spark of the infamous Arab Spring. It was about jobs and economic conditions. The claim that a Sahrawi independence would threaten Mauritanian and Algerian borders is an old Moroccan one, and it’s ludicrous: Mauritania settled the matter long ago, ceding its share of former Spanish Sahara to Polisario (promptly occupied by Morocco), and Algeria would be quite happy to get rid of the refugees. But crucially, both Mauritania and Algeria give their own people a “right of self-determination” because both are democracies, as imperfect, coup-marred, and flawed as they are. I don’t see references to Morocco’s human rights record, nor the Sands War, when Morocco attempted to invade freshly-independent Algeria to annex the very area where Sahrawi refugee camps are now.

Also, while Arun mentions that every legal claim of Morocco over Western Sahara has been turned down by international courts, I don’t see any mention of the fact that Polisario has been recognized by the UN and the international community as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people and an interlocutor in the referendum issue. As per the Moroccan claim that refugees in Tindouf are ethnic Sahrawis of Algerian citizenship, it’s ludicrous, and thoroughly discounted by UNHCR et al.

The claim that Sahrawis in camps suffer is indeed true, they’ve lived as refugees for almost fifty years, in horrible conditions; they have become predisposed to coeliac diseaseseemingly developed because of the poor diet based on humanitarian aid, but to say that they suffer from Polisario repression more serious than the Moroccan one is blatant propaganda, and international NGOs like Amnesty International have written ponderous reports on violations of human rights and there is no comparison.

It is indeed true that Polisario cannot lecture anyone on civil rights, as it’s administration is a one-party rule with tints of typical “liberation front” militarism, and that’s been justified, as in many similar cases, with the needs imposed by the dire situation in refugee camps and Algeria’s need to control a potential hornet’s nest of discontent and terrorism. Speaking of which, by the way, the Moroccan claim that Sahrawis in camps support and feed the ranks of Islamist terrorism has been not only refuted but proven false; on the contrary, some of the defectors from Polisario became notorious AQIM and other Islamist bands in the Sahel figures. The camps have even been attacked by such gangs. Jihadist propaganda is said to be actually censored in the camps, in one of the limitations of free speech blamed on Polisario.

About the left being fed up with the Polisario, (and the European left’s enamorment with anything that smells pro-Soviet, post-colonial, liberation-front, no-matter-what’s-right-before-everyone’s-eyes with Assad and the PKK), that’s certainly true of the French left, but just as certainly untrue for the Italian one—and especially the Spanish one.

Sahrawis were, and some still are, Spanish subjects. The issue is still extremely divisive and touchy in Spain. France supported—and some claim backed—Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara, while post-Franco Spain has debated its historical responsibility to the people of Western Sahara. In which language did you talk to those disgruntled Sahrawis, Claire? Even today, most Sahrawis speak Spanish, not French, as a foreign language, except those coming from or educated in Morocco. Sahrawis also claim, not without reason—but for the little I know this has never been the main issue in the conflict—that they are not Berbers, like the majority of Moroccans, but “true Arabs.” There are also some issues quite obscure to me, but I think I remember that Sahrawis do not recognize the Alaouite dynasty’s claim of descent from the Prophet. For many Moroccans, loyalty to the King is an almost religious matter, unlike loyalty to the Makhzen, and the resentment against Sahrawis aligned with the “godless” Polisario is genuine and palpable.

It’s also notable that Morocco was alleged to be one of the main CIA hubs for dark sites—where extraordinary renditions were held and “enhanced interrogations” conducted; the “black prison” in El Ayun is where Sahrawis campaigning for the referendum were detained and tortured, too.

Thus to conclude that while Morocco claims that the Polisario is akin to PKK as a separatist group (a comparison that doesn’t hold since, unlike PKK, Polisario only hit military personnel and installations and refrained from bombing and targeting civilians).

One thing it does have in common with the Kurdish question in Turkey is that democratic reforms, free and fair elections and, of course, “jobs” (as in, economic development of Western Sahara that doesn’t discriminate against local Sahrawis, disadvantaged by poorer education and political unreliability in favor of “true” Moroccans or pro-government Sahrawis) would most likely void the issue of much of its significance—other than the obvious resentments left by 45 years of occupation, conflict and repression.

A prominent Sahrawi activist (I don’t remember her name but there were many AI campaigns in her favor) once told me that the “real” reason the King (and crucially, the Makhzen) boycotted the UN referendum was the near-certainty that even pro-government Sahrawis and Moroccan “immigrants” in Western Sahara would have voted for independence to escape the oppressiveness and corruption of the Moroccan regime. Of course, there have been some changes since then, but as far as I know they are minor. Gdeim Izik was not a pro-Polisario nor a pro-independence protest, but it was brutally crushed and depicted that way because it was an extremely dangerous precedent (and indeed, it was followed by the very mild Moroccan “Spring,” promptly defused by economic reforms) not only for Western Sahara but for all of Morocco.

Finally, I am saddened and quite surprised that Claire was not given access to Sahrawi camps, I declined to go when I had the chance (and I know that I could go at any moment if it wasn’t for the pandemic), but literally, hordes of European journalists, volunteers, photographers, human rights watchdogs, even a puppet-master I once interviewed in Naples, go there when they want to—and this includes Italian right-wing, often rabidly anti-Polisario journalists. The rationale behind those visits is that conditions in the camp speak for themselves. I used to know scores of Sahrawi students, journalists, and artists living or visiting Italy regularly in connection with a refugee kids’ hospitality program to alleviate children’s hardship in the trying Saharan summer months. They were not shy of criticizing Polisario and its “old men” ruling elite, as any student would do in Europe, but they were adamant about the necessity of supporting their government until “Liberation.”

I also remember a few cases of journalists who were denied the Algerian visa necessary to go there, which might be more complicated than receiving an invitation from Polisario. The point behind Polisario’s policy of open doors and as much freedom as possible in semi-militarized refugee camps under constant threat from a flare-up of the conflict or a diminution of Algerian hospitality is that their most precious political capital is international recognition. Internal repression much milder than what Morocco blames baselessly on Polisario would be enough to make them lose support, and this is also the main reason for strictly avoiding terrorist acts against civilians.

Claire: So, yeah, the Polisario’s administration is a one-party rule with tints of typical “liberation front” militarism. I can confirm that, based on the refugees to whom I spoke.

Morocco offered a compromise political solution for the Western Sahara in 2007—autonomy for the territory, under Moroccan sovereignty. This makes things (again) very unlike the Kurdish conflict. The plan was supported by three consecutive US administrations (Clinton, Bush, Obama). They’ve invested billions in the development of region. I saw this—propaganda tour it may have been, but they weren’t Potemkin factories, and they weren’t Potemkin regional councils, either. They were real. Either that, or they sent tens of thousands of incredibly skilled Moroccan actors to the region to build fake factories and pretend to sit on regional councils, but frankly, let’s go with Occam’s Razor.

Sahrawis there have Moroccan citizenship. Morocco is as much a democracy as Algeria and more of one than Mauritania.

You note that the “very mild Moroccan ‘Spring’ was promptly defused by economic reforms not only for Western Sahara but for all of Morocco” as if this is to Morocco’s discredit. To the contrary. Would you wish it had been defused the way Assad did it?

The Polisario was controlled by the same authoritarian leader, Mohammed Abdelaziz, for thirty years. There’s no freedom of speech, association, or movement in those camps. No independent civil society. No independent judiciary or political parties. They won’t allow the UN to conduct a census that would help it better provide relief assistance to the refugees. Eyewitnesses report that they routinely divert food aid intended for the camp populations, selling it on the black market. From a UNHCR inquiry:

The European Union’s Anti-Fraud Office then revealed a “well-organized, years-long” embezzlement by the Polisario of humanitarian aid designated for Sahrawi refugees. Their report was quite at odds with your observation that anyone’s allowed to visit and in fact seems to confirm my experience: It stated that the Polisario refused to give access and allow oversight by humanitarian organizations and maintained secret warehouses for the aid fraud. As noted in the Executive Summary:

Moreover, the fact that the Sahraoui authorities have not given free access to the members of the humanitarian organizations present on-site, and also have not allowed for checks to be performed on logistical and distribution chains, as well as the reported existence of secret storehouses, constitutes an element which corroborates the conclusion to be drawn as to fraudulent intent.

The allegations of human rights violations, monopolization and abuse of power, blackmailing, sequestering the refugee population in Tindouf, and squandering foreign aid are legion. For example:

The Polisario was born in Rabat, not in the Sahara, says ex-member

The ex-Polisario member who also served as “governor of the Camps of Aousserd and Dakhla in Tindouf (southern Algeria)” said that the Sahrawi population living in the camps are held hostages against their will by the Polisario and the Algerian military security that use them as a propaganda means to mislead the international public opinion.

This conflict is not, sadly, about the Sahrawi people—who, by the way, spoke to me in an incomprehensible dialect of Arabic, which was translated for me into French. It’s about hegemonic rivalry between Algeria and Morocco.

I do not for a second believe the claim that “pro-government Sahrawis and Moroccan ‘immigrants’ in Western Sahara would have voted for independence to escape the oppressiveness and corruption of the Moroccan regime.” It may have been a propaganda tour, Piero, but I did see the place with my own eyes. And I did get well away from the people who were trying to show me how happy everyone was there. I wandered off and spoke to people in cafés, in parks, anywhere I could find people who spoke French. (And yes, this did prejudice the experiment, of course it did, but I just don’t speak Amazigh or Arabic and no one there speaks Spanish. Really.) People seemed to feel that yes, Morocco was doing okay by them, and yes, they were glad to be Moroccan.

Would they have told me otherwise? I don’t know. I do know that generally, even in the most repressive countries, people are quick to say to foreign journalists, “This place sucks. Tell the world.” People think foreign journalists have magical powers to solve their problems—as you know. (And how well you know that we don’t.)

I didn’t hear anything that made me think, “There’s a terrible problem here.” For what it’s worth. And I do know what “a terrible problem here” looks like.

If I had to choose, based on what I know, between being a Moroccan citizen or a citizen of the SADR?

That one’s easy. Let me be Moroccan.

Arun Kapil is a political scientist with a particular interest in immigration, ethnicity, and electoral politics. He teaches at the Catholic University of Paris. Judith Levy is a novelist and the English-language editor at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Piero Castellano is a photographer and writer currently based in Italy. He lived in Egypt, Turkey, and Bosnia, and travels extensively in MENA. Claire Berlinski is the co-founder and editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.


  1. While this is probably outside of the scope of this article the obvious downside of not resolving the Palestinian question is eventually Palestinian nationalism will die out and be replaced by a demand for one man one vote inside of Israel. Maybe the Israeli political establishment can hold this off for another generation but that is probably it on the current track. In fact it could be argued the Israeli Arab vote within the Green Line is already having a impact on Israeli election results. The second issue is Israel to the surprise of many Americans and Europeans who travel there and interact with Israeli businesses is more “Middle Eastern” than most imagine and to the extent Israel becomes even more part of the Middle East(with all the downsides in terms of corruption etc this entails) this may very well loosen some of the cultural and business ties with the EU and US. Some of this goes all the way back all the way back to Israel being “founded” by American and European Jews but “settled” by Middle Eastern ones.

    • An example of this I would argue is that you really won’t find the type of cuisine associated with Eastern European Jewry in Israel outside the most purely touristy establishments. Israeli cuisine is far more similar to that of Arab and Magreb countries.

    • “the obvious downside of not resolving the Palestinian question is eventually Palestinian nationalism will die out and be replaced by a demand for one man one vote inside of Israel”
      Or Islamism (sorry Palestinian Christians). Oh wait…

  2. Four Arab countries openly edging towards normalising relations with Israel is a big deal for those countries’ people – hence the weasel words about what this means (liaison office yes, embassy no, continued rhetorical support for Palestinians and a two state solution). It’s also clearly in the US’ interests imho. None of these countries are proper democracies, but their Governments’ authority may be diminished by taking these steps, leaving them more dependent on force to maintain their power. A more dependent ally is a more dependable ally?

    • Thomas M Gregg | January 5, 2021 at 9:45 pm | Reply

      Not so sure about your conclusion, at least as a general proposition. In WW I, Austria-Hungary was clearly dependent on Germany but could hardly be described as a dependable ally. More than once, the Austrians employed the form of blackmail that a weak ally can always use against its stronger partner: If they were not supported by Germany, they would collapse. (It worked.)

  3. Thomas M Gregg | January 4, 2021 at 7:01 pm | Reply

    Sitting at my desk in NW Indiana, I’m obviously in no position to comment on Israeli reactions to the thaw in relations between that country and various Arab states. But I think I know why the usual suspects here in the US have reacted to it with such sourness. As noted above, loathing of Trump has something to do with it, there are deeper currents.

    For decades the claim that the solution to all problems of the Middle East depended on an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement constituted—I was about to say “conventional wisdom,” but it was more like holy writ—among those who concerned themselves with the matter. And as a corollary, it was held that Israel had the duty to make “sacrifices for peace.” Now this has been exposed as a fallacy, so of course those who believed in it have their noses out of joint. The same thing happened with the demise of the Soviet Union and its satellite people’s republics in Eastern Europe. There was much grumbling and tut-tutting and negativity from those in the West who’d made a career out of whitewashing “real, existing socialism” in places like the DDR. Nobody likes to be shown up as a self-deceiving blowhard. So it is in the case under discussion here.

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