Another Middle East Mess For Biden to Clean Up—Betrayal of the Western Sahara’s Proud Sahrawi People
By: John Mason/ /Arab America Contributing Writer
Trump’s post-election decision to help Israel make good with Morocco resulted in a quid pro quo that the U.S. recognize Morocco’s acquisition of the Western Sahara territory. Morocco had occupied that territory for decades, principally to benefit from its resource richness. This is another Middle East mess for Biden to clean up.
Post-Election Move by Trump to Appease Israel and Morocco
At the urging of then-President Trump, after his loss to Biden, Morocco decided to join the so-called Abraham Accords in a deal with Israel. In that deal, Morocco joined two other Arab countries in agreeing to normalize relations with Israel. But a t what cost? According to the Washington Examiner, son in law and senior adviser to Trump, Jared Kushner was quoted as telling reporters, “This has been held back for so long by old thinking and by stalled process, and we finally had a breakthrough four months ago, and we’re continuing to push the region forward.”
Cementing Israeli’s relations with Arab countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, followed by Morocco became a legacy wish in Trump’s waning term. This warming of relations was promoted by Israel and the Trump administration despite these countries’ decades of hostility towards Israel over its occupation of Palestine. Morocco’s incentive to kindle relations with Israel was predicated on U.S. recognition of the Kingdom’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, a former Mauritanian territory, where a strong independence movement under the Polisario Front has prevailed for decades.
In reinforcing Morocco’s right to the Western Sahara, Trump averred, again according to the Examiner, that “The United States believes that an independent Sahrawi State is not a realistic option for resolving the conflict and that genuine autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty is the only feasible solution.” He further urged that the Sahrawi people demur to Morocco’s autonomy plan “as the only framework to negotiate a mutually acceptable solution.”
Just wave the wand and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic disappears! Adding insult to injury, Kushner added, “We have peace sprouting in the Middle East,” all thanks to Trump’s unorthodox approach of breaking down old barriers to Arab-Israeli relations and, of course, always at the expense of Israeli’s occupation of the Palestinians and now, the aspirations of the Sahrawi People. According to Trump ‘theory,’ the realpolitik resolution of these festering problems has been inevitable, since—after all— ‘history is written by the victors.’
Senators urge Biden to reverse U.S. recognition of Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara
Senators from both parties have urged President Biden to undo U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, citing the “misguided decision” of the former President. According to Middle East Eye, in a letter to the President, the senators wrote, “The abrupt decision by the previous administration on December 11, 2020, to officially recognize the Kingdom of Morocco’s illegitimate claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara was short-sighted, undermined decades of consistent US policy, and alienated a significant number of African nations.”
Prior to the “normalization” move of the former administration, the conflict over the Western Sahara flared up sporadically, resulting in thousands of Sahrawis being forced into refugee camps in Algeria. Most world leadership opinion was that a referendum would be held in the Western Sahara to determine its fate, namely, to grant it autonomy, independence, or integration with Morocco. According to The Times of Israel, “…as part of his push to formalise diplomatic ties between Israel and Arab states, Trump moved to validate Morocco’s claim to the region and open a US consulate in the disputed territory.”
Not coincidental to the issue of the Western Sahara’s sovereignty is that area’s possession of valued natural resources. These resources were what originally attracted the Spanish colonialists to occupy it. Fishing in coastal areas, phosphates, agriculture, iron and precious metals, and solar and wind energy are what the Moroccans have been seeking for decades. In exploiting these resources, the Kingdom has settled thousands of Moroccan peasants and laborers, while marginalizing Sahrawis, and thus making Moroccan settlers the majority population.
While Biden backs normalization between Israel and Arab countries, he has not yet decided on whether to render U.S. recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara or to reverse his predecessor’s decision to allow this aggrandizing act to stand. Meanwhile, Morocco is cracking down on Western Sahara activists after the deal with Israel, while at the same time, rebels in the area have launched attacks against the intruder. Several U.S. Senators are adamant about their support of the Sahrawis, thus complicating Biden’s decision on this important moral, ethical issue.
Moroccan Occupation vs. Israeli Occupation—Moral Equivalence?
If the Moroccan hold on the Western Sahara is upheld by the Biden administration, the U.S. would be the only country worldwide to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over that fledgling country. To test the issue of moral equivalence, Democracy Now featured Western Sahara specialist Stephen Zunes, who suggested:
“Though the United States has been, in effect, supporting Morocco’s occupation for many years, just as it has been supporting Israel’s occupation for many years, Trump, in both cases, has gone well beyond what previous administrations of both parties have done, and violated long-standing international legal norms — in the case of Palestine, recognizing Jerusalem as solely Israel’s capital, moving the U.S. Embassy there, and recognizing Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights.”
Zunes, however, suggested that the situation is even worse in the case of Morocco, since its action demands recognition of its illegal annexation of an entire country, not just a portion of a country, as in the case of Israel.
While the prompt reaction of several U.S. Senators in requesting Biden to reverse the Trump decision on the Western Sahara is helpful, it is unclear at this point whether Biden will, indeed, push for the return to the Sahrawi people, including their right to at least vote on their own freedom. We may know soon enough Biden’s decision.
“Morocco joins Abraham Accords in deal with Israel,” Washington Examiner, 12/10/2020
“Senators urge Biden to undo US recognition of Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara,” Middle East Eye, 1/18/2021
“Morocco savors US recognition of Western Sahara in Israel normalization deal,” Times of Israel, 12/12/2020
“U.S. Recognizes Morocco’s Occupation of Western Sahara in Latest Betrayal of Sahrawi People,” Democracy Now, 12/11/2020
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He did fieldwork in an east Libyan Saharan oasis and has taught at the University of Libya-Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo. John served with the United Nations as an official in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, the UN, and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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