As the Moroccan ambassador to the United Nations, Omar Hilale, lit candles Thursday alongside his Israeli counterpart, Gilad Erdan, some in Washington tsk-tsk’d about the Western Sahara.
Like the Israeli-Palestinian territorial disputes, the fight over the desert tract of African land has for decades been a favorite plaything for Washington peace processors and their Turtle Bay counterparts. The more intense the diplomatic activity, the more entangled the Gordian Knot has become.
Until, that is, the famous disrupter, Donald Trump, came with a diplomatic axe. As part of Morocco’s joining the Abraham Accords — Mr. Trump’s campaign to widen the number of Arab countries at full peace and diplomatic relations with Israel — America agreed to recognize Rabat’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.
Within days — maybe hours — the carping in Washington began. Diplomats are up in arms. “The United States has unwisely abandoned its principles for something that will make no difference... to the resolution of the conflict,” is the way the issue was vented by a former secretary of state, James Baker, whose most famous pronouncement on the Middle East was an epithet, in gutter language, toward the Jews.
Wrote Mr. Baker in the Washington Post: “Many U.S. allies and others have already made statements to that effect. The upcoming Biden administration would do well to rescind this rash and cynical action. Doing so will not undermine the Abraham Accords.”
“Who are these allies?” said an incredulous Ambassador Hilale, when I read that line to him. Most countries, he noted, issued carefully-worded statements. He noted Mr. Baker’s warning in his piece that Mr. Trump’s move could lead to violence and resurgence of al Qaeda in the region. Mr. Baker, he added, “just wants to scare people.” If terrorism resurfaces, Mr. Hilale said, Morocco’s army would deal with it.
Mr. Baker forgot to mention his own failed role in resolving the long-festering desert dispute. In 2000, after he was named UN special envoy for Western Sahara, the former secretary of state presented a plan that offered the people of the region autonomous self rule under Moroccan sovereignty.
That plan was summarily rejected by the Polisario Front and Algeria, so Mr. Baker followed up with another idea, a phased plan leading up to a referendum on Western Saharan independence. The UN Security Council adopted the Baker II plan, as it became known, in 2003. It has achieved nothing and the impasse has become entrenched.
Disagreements erupted over participation in the referendum. The Polisario and Algeria objected to the inclusion of Moroccans who settled in Western Sahara since 1975. Details were constantly rehashed even after Mr. Baker resigned his post in disgust over his own failure. A UN-sponsored conference featuring an ever-growing rank of diplomats gathered annually on Long Island. Pleasantries were exchanged and vague statements issued.
As the diplomats cordially debated, the Moroccan monarch, King Mohammed VI, invested significant funds in Western Sahara, paving roads and seeking some development in the impoverished region. Visitors to Morocco quickly realize, as I did a few years back, that no other issue unites the country as does Western Sahara.
The saga of Western Sahara began in 1976, as Spain abandoned its former colony. Nature abhors vacuum, so Morocco seized most of the territory while Mauritania took over the rest. At the height of the Cold War, Morocco was an American ally. So, as elsewhere, the Soviet camarilla cultivated an opposition group, the Polisario Front, which launched an armed rebellion, demanding independence for Western Sahara.
After the demise of the Soviet Union, the Polisario remained active, enabled by backing from Algeria, Morocco’s neighbor and regional rival. Algiers armed the group and heavily lobbied for it around the world. The Polisario threatened several times to break a 1991 ceasefire and resume armed resistance, but Morocco’s superior military power prevented any return to violence.
Many Moroccans say the only reason Algeria maintained its support for the Polisario was its need to get maritime access to the Atlantic Ocean. Much of it, though, was Algiers’ intense rivalry with Morocco.
After the ouster a year ago of Algeria's long-time but ailing strongman Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the country is attempting to become a representative democracy. The economy, though, is anemic and institutions are weak. Bouteflika’s successor, 75-year old President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, made a rare public appearance last week on a videotape from Germany, where for more than six weeks he’s been recovering from Covid 19.
So no, by recognizing Western Sahara Mr. Trump has not sowed the seeds for a major Saharan war. Mr. Biden would better keep America’s recognition of a decades-old reality. If anything, it may lead to a solution that has evaded a generation of diplomats who failed to recognize that Morocco is a relatively stable Arab country, while the Polisario is clinging to a dream of the Cold War.
Once Morocco’s sovereignty is resolved and recognized, talk about its King’s autonomy plan for the region (which, incidentally, resembles Mr. Baker’s original plan) can resume in earnest. “The King said we are keen on the political process,” Mr. Hilale told me.
That he said it a day after lighting Hanukkah candles alongside Israel’s ambassador, reciting King Mohammed VI’s investment in strengthening Morocco’s historically vibrant Jewish presence, gives Mr. Hilale’s words an additional significance. Hanukkah, after all, is, among other things, a reminder that miracles do happen.
Correction: The Atlantic is the ocean to which Algeria covets access; the ocean was given incorrectly in the bulldog edition.