Morocco in recent months has started to link the opening of an embassy in Tel Aviv to formal recognition by the Israeli government of its sovereignty in Western Sahara, four current and former Israeli officials directly involved in the issue told Axios.
he big picture: Then-President Trump’s recognition of Western Sahara as part of Morocco two years ago was part of a broader deal that included the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Morocco.
- Morocco opened diplomatic liaison offices in Israel in lieu of embassies, but in January 2021, King Mohammed VI told Netanyahu in a call that he was committed to opening embassies as part of the next phase of the process.
Flashback: During a visit to Morocco last June, then-Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked told local media that Israel recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.
- But the Israeli Foreign Ministry quickly walked back Shaked’s statement, saying “Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara is a positive development.”
- Several weeks later, Israel’s then-Justice Minister Gideon Saar visited Morocco and said publicly that Western Sahara is part of Morocco. But the Israeli Foreign Ministry once again distanced itself from the statement and reiterated its more nuanced position.
Context: The Moroccan government has been locked in a long-standing dispute over the territory with the Saharawi Polisario Front, an armed group in Western Sahara that calls for independence
Behind the scenes: Four current and former Israeli officials told Axios that in recent months, Moroccan officials have demanded formal Israeli recognition of Western Sahara every time Israeli officials raised the issue of the liaison office upgrade.
- So far, the Israeli government has decided not to engage on this issue, the Israeli officials said.
- The Israeli Foreign Ministry believes the Moroccans are using the recognition issue as a pretext to not open a full embassy in Tel Aviv because of criticism back home, per the Israeli officials.
- The Moroccan Foreign Ministry and the Moroccan liaison office in Tel Aviv did respond to a request for comment.
What’s next: Israeli officials believe the incoming government won’t have a problem recognizing Western Sahara as part of Morocco, pointing to Netanyahu’s hopes to visit the kingdom in the coming months.