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Israel links Western Sahara move to Morocco hosting Negev Forum

Israel has linked its pending decision on recognising Morocco’s claim on the Western Sahara to the North African nation hosting a repeatedly postponed forum of foreign ministers involved in a United States-sponsored regional normalisation drive.

“We are right now working in regards to this issue, and our plan is to have our final decision in the Negev Forum,” Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told reporters on Monday, adding that he expected the Moroccan-hosted event to take place in September or October.

For decades, Morocco has been embroiled in a dispute with the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, a breakaway movement that seeks to establish an independent state in the Western Sahara. The region was a Spanish colony until 1975 before Morocco took control of it, a move that has not been recognised internationally.

The so-called Negev Forum was created out of a summit organised in March 2022 by former Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at the Kibbutz of Sde Boker in Israel’s Negev desert.

The forum’s goal is to enhance cooperation among Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and the US. These are the countries involved in the Abraham Accords, US-brokered agreements between Israel and Arab countries to normalise relations.

Israel-Morocco ties

Morocco has had informal ties with Israel for years, but the two countries agreed to normalise their relations in December 2020. As part of the agreement, then-US President Donald Trump agreed to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

Under the deal, Morocco said it would establish full diplomatic relations, resume official contacts with Israel, and grant overflights and direct flights to and from Israel for all Israelis.

In 2021, the two countries signed another agreement in a step towards further strengthening their ties. As part of the new deal, they agreed to cooperate in the fields of culture, sports and youth affairs.

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden’s administration said it will review the previous administration’s decision to recognise Morocco’s claim over the Western Sahara.

Diplomatic sources say Morocco could establish full relations with Israel and repurpose their current mid-level diplomatic missions as embassies in exchange for Israeli recognition of Morocco’s claim.

But Morocco, citing Israel’s actions against Palestinians, last month postponed the Negev Forum.

Asked at a briefing with foreign media about what Israel sought in return for recognition of the Western Sahara as Moroccan and whether it planned to open a consulate in the territory, Cohen linked a decision to the conference.