Trump faces bipartisan, international pushback on Western Sahara recognition
President Trump’s decision to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the contested territory of Western Sahara in exchange for the nation resuming ties with Israel is coming up against bipartisan and international pushback.
While welcoming the increasing number of countries normalizing relations with Israel, critics are concerned these deals are coming with a quid pro quo of large weapons sales and a disregard for human rights.
They also slam the president for throwing out decades of multilateral mediation and legitimizing forceful land grabs in violation of international law.
“I am concerned this announcement upends a credible, internationally supported U.N. process to address the territorial dispute over Western Sahara,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said on Thursday.
“Casting aside legitimate multilateral avenues of conflict resolution only empowers countries like Russia and China to continue trampling on international rules and norms and rewards those who violate borders and the rights of free peoples,” he added.
Trump announced on Twitter on Thursday that the U.S. would recognize Morocco’s claims to annexed territory in the Western Sahara, while Rabat would begin resuming diplomatic relations with Jerusalem.
The decision drew a strong rebuke from Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an ally of the president. He called the move to recognize Rabat’s claims to the Western Sahara “shocking and deeply disappointing.”
“I am saddened that the rights of the Western Saharan people have been traded away,” he said.
Morocco annexed portions of the Western Sahara in 1979 but did not receive international recognition of its claims in the face of conflict with the separatist Polisario Front, which represents the indigenous Sahrawi people. Hundreds of thousands of Sahrawi refugees currently reside in neighboring Algeria, which supports their independence movement.
A referendum to determine the final status of the territory has stalled since a ceasefire agreement was brokered in 1991 by the United Nations, and an international peacekeeping force has monitored the situation for decades.
European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borell said Thursday that the EU remains committed to the U.N. efforts to resolve the conflict, while voicing support for the resumption of ties between Israel and Morocco.
Trump and administration officials touted the breakthrough in diplomatic ties with Morocco as building on their success with the Abraham Accords, the brokering of relations among Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.
Trump has brandished these deals as part of his foreign policy legacy, fashioning himself as the only one capable of such breakthroughs.
The growing number of countries normalizing relations with Israel is also a key priority for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is likely to soon face a fourth round of elections and is battling popular discontent over his mounting legal battles.
“Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal, Bibi?” Trump asked Netanyahu in an October call from the Oval Office announcing the deal with Sudan.
President-elect Joe Biden has welcomed the progress by the Trump administration to open up Israel to the Arab world, but has stressed the need to re-engage and coordinate with allies, in particular the EU, in resolving global conflicts.
The Biden transition team declined to comment on the most recent developments in the region.
“President-elect Biden has endorsed the other normalization agreements over the last several months, so I think he will endorse this normalization as well,” said David Makovsky, Ziegler distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute.
“He has seen bringing together Arab and Israeli allies as something that is both in America’s interest for stability of the region and in keeping with a bipartisan desire of American foreign policy over decades to reach peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors in order to integrate Israel into the Middle East,” he added.
The Trump administration has offered key incentives to grow the number of Muslim- and Arab-majority nations engaging with Israel, but those moves have come up against pushback from Democrats who are likely to force a stronger hand with a Biden administration.
They includes a $23 billion arms sale to the UAE after its establishing ties with Israel. A Democratic-led resolution seeking to block the arms sale failed to pass the Senate in a vote on Wednesday.
Democratic pushback in the Senate, however, is threatening the Trump administration’s promises to Sudan as part of their new agreement. Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Bob Menendez (N.J.) are holding up legislation granting the east African nation immunity in the U.S. for terrorism-related lawsuits over concerns of 9/11 victims claims against the country.
Sudan is reportedly stepping back on its promise of establishing full ties with Israel over the stalemate in Congress.
For Morocco, recognition of their claims in the Western Sahara legitimizes efforts to demarcate areas of control established with the construction of a 1,700 mile-long berm — made partly of sand and stone — and reinforced by landmines.
Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton, who had spearheaded efforts to restart negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario Front and was deeply involved in efforts around the issue at the United Nations throughout the 1990s, criticized the president’s recognition of Morocco’s claim.
“Trump was wrong to abandon thirty years of US policy on Western Sahara just to score a fast foreign policy victory,” Bolton wrote on Twitter. “An Israel-Morocco deal was possible without abandoning [the] US commitment to Sahrawi referendum on [Western Sahara’s] future.”
Trump was wrong to abandon thirty years of US policy on Western Sahara just to score a fast foreign policy victory. An Israel-Morocco deal was possible without abandoning US commitment to Sahrawi referendum on WS future, as Sen. Jim Inhofe rightly said. https://t.co/AeVaML1HeQ
— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) December 11, 2020
Karim Mezran, director of the North Africa Initiative with the Atlantic Council, said the U.S. policy shift may contribute to increasing tensions and fighting in the region, with an outbreak of clashes reported last month in the most significant violation of the ceasefire since its establishment.
“Tensions in the area have been on the rise for some time, but this event may accelerate a renewed clash between the two Maghrebi states,” Mezran said. “In other words, this normalization in exchange for recognition of Moroccan claims over the Western Sahara will be a success of the Moroccan monarchy if it does not plunge it into a military confrontation with Algeria.”
That fear was echoed by Engel, who in his statement called “on all parties in North Africa to exercise restraint, refrain from violence and continue to work toward a just and lasting solution.”
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, said the U.S. recognition of the Western Sahara was an “inevitability” that will contribute to progress in the region.
“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 in a briefing with reporters on Thursday.
“And the hope is that this step is — No. 1 is it’s recognizing the inevitability of what is going to occur, but it also can possibly break the logjam to help advance the issues in the Western Sahara, where we want the Polisario people to have a better opportunity to live a better life. And the president felt like this conflict was holding them back, as opposed to bringing it forward.”