Rabat – No officials from Morocco or Israel have confirmed the widely circulating news, but recent developments suggest they may be engaged in rapprochement talks.
Last week, on January 23, Norm Coleman, a former senator and former chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), tweeted a picture of a recent trip to Rabat.
The picture showed Coleman with Moroccan foreign minister Nasser Bourita; pro-Morocco lobbyist Andrew King; and three other senior Jewish Republicans, Mat Brooks, Ari Fleischer, and Elliot Abrams, known for their pro-Israel activism.
Bourita’s meeting with the RJC adds legitimacy to the claims that Rabat is flexing its diplomatic muscles to garner more support from the American establishment, Washington-based outlet Al Monitor reported.
Israel as key to Trump’s uncertain foreign policy
The Trump administration has been unpredictable on a number of foreign policy issues.
While Washington has in many regards remained committed to Morocco as an ally—the continued cooperation on security is one example—some other moves from the Trump administration have bewildered Rabat.
Most recently, National Security Advisor John Bolton’s apparent anti-Morocco statements and Trump’s “Africa Strategy” were a major source of contention in Rabat-Washington circles.
Where the US saw the necessity of reclaiming its “lost prestige” by containing Chinese inroads in Africa, Rabat, more concerned with its Western Sahara position, feared a sudden shift in terms of US priorities in Africa.
Commitment to Israel has been one of the few unambiguous guidelines of the Trump administration’s foreign policy priorities.
Morocco’s diplomatic activism and Netanyahu rumors
When asked about the aim of the RJC’s visit to Rabat, Abrams wrote off suggestions that the group was working to facilitate prospective diplomatic overtures between Morocco and Israel. “My only comment is that I have many friends in Morocco, especially in the Jewish community, and was happy to see them again,” Abrams said, according to Al Monitor.
Despite the denial, the group’s Rabat visit came amid reports of a potential visit to Morocco by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Reports on the visit have emphasized Netanyahu’s desire to seek “normalization” with the Muslim world, including countries in the Middle East and Africa.
The caption of Coleman’s Rabat trip picture referred to Morocco as “An Arab country that that [sic] promotes tolerance—for Jews and Christians—in their constitution.” The language resembles that of the keywords of Netanyahu’s “normalization” efforts, which have been couched in terms of brokering “historical peace with the Muslim world.”
On the Moroccan side, meanwhile, rapprochement with Israel is more likely to do with the North African country’s efforts in recent years to increase its visibility on the global stage and broaden international support for its stance on Western Sahara.
Since 2017, Rabat’s diplomatic efforts has made valuable diplomatic inroads in Africa and the Americas in previously uncharted territories for Moroccan diplomacy.
The efforts have paid off. The UN Security Council’s recent resolution about the Western Sahara contained a language that is viewed in Morocco as positive. In addition, many countries in Africa, Europe, and Latin America have vowed support for Rabat’s position in Western Sahara. While the US, too, has applauded the Moroccan Autonomy Plan on many occasions, the Trump administration’s position has not been clear.
Last week, President Trump signed into law the 2019 spending bill, a document that includes explicitly Morocco-friendly language. The bill’s section on Morocco includes Western Sahara in US aids to Morocco and calls for international efforts to monitor the humanitarian assistance to the Tindouf camps in Algeria, two points that echoed Rabat sentiments on the Western Sahara question.
Rabat shifts to bold PR
For all its boost to Morocco’s position, the bill came after Washington had sent mixed messages to its North African ally. The adoption of the bill followed an episode that has been associated with the “Bolton effect” in the framework of the ongoing UN-led negotiations for a sustainable settlement in Western Sahara.
Last year, amid indications of a more promising UN-led process in the Western Sahara under the auspices of Host Kohler, the Trump administration unexpectedly requested that the mandate of MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, be only renewed by six months.
The usual renewal period was one year, and many perceived the unprecedented sixth-month timeframe as a Bolton-concocted strategy to put more pressure on conflicting parties, especially Morocco, where Trump’s appointment of Bolton raised concerns.
While being assertive and bold with its other partners–note Rabat’s boldness when negotiating the renewal of the fisheries and agriculture agreements with the EU–Morocco has overwhelmingly relied on the reciprocity principle when dealing with Washington.
When Ambassador Omar Hilale said last month that no senior US official can jeopardize the longstanding relations between Rabat and Washington, he did not merely intend to downplay the “Bolton effect.”
Ambassador Hilale’s larger point, given Morocco’s position as the US’ strongest ally in North Africa and given the kingdom’s known commitment to its alliance with the US, was that Morocco did not need, like other players in the Sahara dispute, to resort to aggressive PR and lobbying campaigns. Morocco could always count on its American ally to stand by its side, Hilale suggested.
Weeks later, however, the US House of Representatives passed a Morocco-hostile spending bill. The move was largely perceived as a relative PR setback for Rabat. That setback catapulted Moroccan diplomats into initiating backdoor negotiations with Washington, yielding results that have been unfolding in recent weeks.
Despite the confidence that has come with President Trump passing into law a spending bill that reflects Morocco’s position, the RCJ’s trip to Rabat suggests that Morocco has learned its lesson from: When dealing with the Trump administration, the reciprocity principle should be accompanied by bolder and firmer and firmer steps.
According to Moroccan and Israeli news reports on Netanyahu’s rumored visit to Rabat, Moroccan diplomats hope that rapprochement with Israel will put Morocco in a better position to get game-changing support from the US government on Western Sahara.
While there are clear indications that Rabat is poised to lobby for US support on its Western Sahara position, Netanyahu’s rumored visit should be taken with a grain of salt. Support for the Palestinian cause is part of Morocco’s foreign policy directives, and it remains to be seen whether that can change overnight.