Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the British Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy
Since the Second World War, the revision of frontiers, overriding the wishes both of the people who lived in the territories adjusted and their officially recognised governments has been frowned upon, for obvious reasons – as Saddam Hussein found out to his cost in 1991 when he invaded Kuwait (and as he also found out to his cost in 2003 – because revision of leaders could still happen, as long as frontiers were not disturbed).
Like all international norms, this non-revision of borders wasn’t universally upheld. Yet even when Russia annexed parts of Georgia or Ukraine, it went through the motions of holding sham elections to legitimate its land grab. The Trump Administration doesn’t feel the need to be bound by such hypocrisy – which Benjamin Netanyahu has tried, but never quite managed, to exploit fully.
His latest qualified victory has come in the form of Israel’s normalisation this week of relations with Morocco. Morocco has great cities, a large diaspora, one of the world’s major Jewish communities; it also controls territory significantly beyond its internationally recognised borders, and protects itself from insurgents by means of an long separation barrier.
Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, has now won this land for himself – in exchange for the diplomatic gesture of recognising Israel, something he probably wanted to do anyway, so as not to be left behind by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
The territory in question is Western Sahara. It had been a Spanish colony for almost 90 years until the decaying Franco regime (which owes its origins to a military putsch that began in Spanish Morocco) decided it could no longer hold on, and offered the Saharawis a plebiscite.
As Franco lay dying in hospital, the then King of Morocco, King Hassan II, forced a Spanish regime that was now confronting a succession crisis to hand the territory over. The last thing Francoists wanted was to have the best units of their army occupied fighting a colonial war to defend territory they wanted to leave anyway, when these troops might be needed to quell an uprising in Spain.
The insurgency in question is led by the Polisario movement, originally backed by Algeria, which operates from the inland desert. The separation barrier referred to above has been constructed to prevent them infiltrating guerillas into the territory Morocco controls.
Morocco and Israel have pulled off a notable diplomatic coup in the Trump Administration’s twilight. Israel gets diplomatic recognition from another Arab country, and access to an important destination for foreign investment. Morocco gets recognition of territory, and Israel’s support in seeking to prevent an future American administration from changing its mind. There are legal consequences too: it should be easier to have Saharawi insurgents designated as terrorists, making it harder for them to raise funds.
This mutual recognition comes, however, with wider diplomatic costs. The West is now divided on Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. The EU and UK (not to mention the UN) are opposed. So it is not obvious that Morocco, for whom relations with the nearby EU are far more important than with Israel or the United States, has made the best use of its diplomatic capital. That the agreement was made with a lame duck Trump administration won’t help win over a Biden team bent on restoring the international order.
This trade gives off the whiff of a nineteenth century-style carve-up. Other territories denied international recognition will have been made distinctly more nervous. Perhaps the most important of these is Taiwan. Though Trump will have been booted out of office before he can trade away American protection of Taiwan, Taipei is now a little less secure than it was.
Morocco did extremely well out of this Mohammed-Trump-Netanyahu deal. And Israel got something out of it. But the biggest long term winner will be Beijing, whose diplomats are doubtless already working to turn this egregious lame-duckery into a precedent for the next stage in China’s “peaceful rise.”