Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy advisor to the British Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy
Since World War II, the revision of the borders, which overrode the wishes of both the people living in the areas and their officially recognized governments, has been frowned upon for obvious reasons – as Saddam Hussein found out at his expense in 1991, invading Kuwait (and how he found out in 2003 at his own expense – because a revision of the leaders could still take place as long as the borders were not disrupted).
Like all international standards, this non-revision of the borders has not been widely recognized. But even when Russia annexed parts of Georgia or Ukraine, it went through requests to hold sham elections to legitimize its land grab. The Trump administration has no need to be bound by such hypocrisy – which Benjamin Netanyahu tried, but never quite managed to fully exploit.
His most recent qualified victory was the normalization of Israel this week of relations with Morocco. Morocco has big cities, a big diaspora, one of the largest Jewish communities in the world; It also controls areas that go well beyond its internationally recognized borders, and protects itself from insurgents through a long separation barrier.
The Moroccan King Mohammed VI. Has now won this country for himself – in exchange for the diplomatic gesture of recognizing Israel, which he probably wanted to do anyway so as not to be left behind by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
The area in question is Western Sahara. It had been a Spanish colony for almost 90 years until the crumbling Franco regime (which owes its origins to a military coup started in Spanish Morocco) decided it could no longer hold out and offered the Saharawis a referendum.
As Franco was dying in hospital, the then King of Morocco, King Hassan II, forced a Spanish regime now facing a succession crisis to surrender the territory. The last thing the Francoists wanted was for the best units in their army to wage a colonial war to defend the area they wanted to leave anyway if those troops could be needed to quell an insurrection in Spain.
The uprising in question is led by the Polisario Movement, originally backed by Algeria and operating from the desert inland. The separation barrier mentioned above was built to prevent guerrillas from entering the area controlled by Morocco.
Morocco and Israel carried out a remarkable diplomatic coup in the twilight of the Trump administration. Israel gains diplomatic recognition from another Arab country and access to an important destination for foreign investment. Morocco receives recognition for its territory and Israel’s support in trying to prevent a future American government from changing its mind. There are also legal ramifications: it should be easier to designate Saharawi insurgents as terrorists, which makes it harder for them to raise funds.
However, this mutual recognition comes with higher diplomatic costs. The West is now divided over Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. The EU and the UK (not to mention the United Nations) are against it. It is therefore not obvious that Morocco, for which 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. The fact that the deal was struck with a lame Duck Trump administration will not help attract a Biden team that wants to restore international order.
This trade exudes a nineteenth-century split. Other areas that have been denied international recognition have become significantly more nervous. Perhaps the most important of these is Taiwan. Although Trump was fired from office before he can lift Taiwan’s protection from the United States, Taipei is now a little less safe than it used to be.
Morocco did very well on this Mohammed-Trump-Netanyahu deal. And Israel benefits from it. The biggest long-term winner, however, will be Beijing, whose diplomats are undoubtedly already working to turn this immense lameness into a precedent for the next stage in China’s “peaceful rise”.