Morocco and Israel: Point-Counterpoint
"Claire, you ignorant slut"
For our non-American readers and our younger American readers: That’s an allusion to an old joke. Americans used to be allowed to make jokes like that. Don’t make that joke, though. Especially not on social media. You’ll be cancelled.
“But Claire, why are you allowed to make that joke?”
“Because I frankly don’t give a shit who cancels me.”
“And for good measure, here’s the cover of Charlie Hebdo.”
Claire’s editorial team: Oh, shit.
Claire: Look, are we for the Enlightenment or not?
An Israeli Perspective
By Judith Levy, special correspondent to the Cosmopolitan Globalist
I read your conversation with your friend Arun with great interest. One point: Israel evacuated Gaza in 2005. It sounds a bit silly (especially in the course of such a knowledgeable discussion) to draw an analogy between the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank/Gaza. Say what you will about the West Bank (where the analogy is also somewhat strained, as you noted), but we’ve been out of Gaza for 15 years. We might as well never have left, as most people on Earth are stoutly convinced we’re still there.
I was also struck by the dismissiveness you both expressed toward the recent rapprochements between Israel and the four (four!) Arab states. I’m seeing this here in Israel as well to a certain extent, and it’s an interesting phenomenon. I’d argue that these rapprochements are in fact highly significant and should be acknowledged as such; and also that the somewhat sniffy dismissal they’ve been given by much if not most of the Western world reflects (in part) a general discomfiture at the characters who managed to pull this thing off (not just Trump et al., but Bibi too). More on that in a second.
In the case of Morocco, it is of course true that we’ve had a solid, if tacit, relationship for a long time. But now it’s out in the open, and that is the point. I understand what you and Arun were saying—that from an American standpoint the normalization between Jerusalem and Rabat doesn’t accomplish much, and that all four agreements are underwhelming since none of the four was in a state of war with us—but I think you’re underestimating the significance of the public disclosure of these relationships.
To get one point out of the way: Emirati airplanes are landing at Ben Gurion (or were, before the new lockdown) and Israelis are (were) happily posting selfies of themselves and smiling Emiratis standing next to piles of Israeli fruit in Dubai grocery stores—but I understand that while this is a big deal for us (or at least some of us), it doesn’t mean much to anyone else in the world. (And it is a big deal. It’s not easy being the Chess Club kid whom the popular kids secretly hire to help them write their term papers but who are shunned in public for decades. From a psychological standpoint, this is a sea change on both sides—but again, that doesn’t render this important for you or Arun or anyone else.)
There are two interconnected reasons why these deals do in fact matter: They change the dynamic toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians (to which you both alluded, but I would suggest not quite from the right angle); and the Gulf State agreements in particular throw a giant monkey wrench into Iran’s hegemonic plans for the region. The latter is now a critical strategic goal not just for Israel but for the Sunni Arab world, now that the US has effectively thrown in the towel.
Regarding the first: It is enormously significant that Arab states are now signaling through these deals that they will no longer allow the satisfying of their own self-interest to be made contingent upon the prior satisfaction of Palestinian self-interest. Granted, the Arab world’s willingness to elevate the Palestinian cause in that way for so long did reflect a policy of self-interest, insofar as it was used as a smokescreen to rally popular support when needed and conceal ills ranging from domestic mismanagement to flat-out tyranny. But the equation no longer adds up for them: What they stand to gain by allying with Israel now outweighs what they stand to gain by continuing to tout the Palestinian party line.
And the thing the Sunni (or Sunni-ruled) states now stand to gain—beyond the lucrative joint ventures, technological and academic exchanges, tourism boosts, and so on, which were always on the table but were never in the past sufficiently tempting—is a powerful new ally in the effort to halt the Islamic Republic of Iran’s hegemonic drive for domination of the Muslim world. One could argue that the uniting of Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel as a common force against Iran is not necessarily the one to bet on, particularly with the US now tilting back in the other direction; but the point is that this is an opening that allows more Arab states to take the same step—as, indeed, two of them quickly did.
As for the fate of the Palestinians in the wake of these deals, while you and Arun are looking at it reasonably fairly I feel I’m sensing just a bit of the sad shaking of the head of so many other people around the world at the way the Palestinian cause has been sacrificed on the altar of Realpolitik. But that’s not how I see it at all. Quite the opposite. It is not the Palestinians but the Palestinians’ useless leadership who have been thrown for a loop by these developments. This is a positive step, not a negative one, because the muscle behind their leadership’s approach to negotiation-as-extortion has withered. Now that they can no longer make preposterous demands (i.e., that we essentially commit national suicide) in the sure knowledge that they will be backed up by a Muslim united front, we can make a deal. Whether this will actually happen or not depends on many things that cannot be predicted (primarily what will happen when Abbas dies), but there is new potential for positive movement between Israel and the Palestinians that did not exist before.
Regarding the second significance of the deals—the thwarting of Iran—the strategic importance of this to the Sunni Arab world cannot be overstated. American obliviousness not only to the fact of Iranian hegemonic ambitions over the Muslim world but to the violence against Muslims that those ambitions have entailed is maddening beyond belief—and I’m saying that as a Jewish American-Israeli, so you can imagine how it must feel to Sunni Muslims in Iraq, say, whose family members were mown down by Soleimani’s shock troops at the behest of Tehran. We are perceived as paranoid or, if not that, certainly unhelpful for considering Iran an existential threat, even though the regime has made its intentions for us abundantly clear for more than 40 years.
Israel’s regular air strikes on Iranian positions on the Syrian border are viewed not only by Israelis but also by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as in their interest, as Israel is taking steps to inhibit Tehran’s accomplishment of a continuous Shiite crescent all the way to the Mediterranean. The Iranian regime is a profound threat that has brought Israel together with Gulf States that have watched Washington’s gradual retreat from the region, and its soon-to-be resuscitated relations with Tehran, with great concern. The big smiles on the White House lawn projected not only the dawning of a new era with regard to Israel’s position in the region but a warning to Iran, which will now have to recalibrate its tactics as it pursues its ultimate goal.
To follow up on the point about the personalities involved in the making of the Arab-Israeli deals: I can’t help but wonder whether the reflexive dismissal of this historic shift by the educational and journalistic elites reflects a degree of social (rather than political) bias. If some oracle had predicted at the start of 2020 that the year would end with Israeli peace agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, that oracle would have been suspected of a career-destroying optimism. (She’d also be fired for not foreseeing the COVID crisis.) The agreements are collectively a major achievement and would certainly have been hailed as such had pretty much anyone else pulled them off. But it is inconceivable to the cognoscenti that anyone as boorish and politically inept as Trump could possibly have engineered a significant change for the better in so intractable a part of the world; ergo, it is not such a change. It’s entirely possible that Trump accomplished it for terrible reasons, as you and Arun suggest; but that does not mitigate the value of the accomplishment itself.
What makes this so interesting is that the Israeli cognoscenti (i.e., the academic and journalistic elites, which are, as they are everywhere, overwhelmingly leftist) feel exactly the same way, only about Bibi rather than Trump. (Well, about Trump too, but they could laugh at Trump—Bibi appalls them to the core.) The loathing this class feels toward Bibi is precisely the same visceral, emotional, stomach-turning revulsion that that class in the US exhibits toward Trump, and they look askance at Israeli Bibi fans exactly the same way the American and European elites look at Trump supporters. Do you, as a card-carrying member of both the academic and journalistic elites, feel you would have been as dismissive of the Arab-Israeli peace agreements if they had been accomplished by, say, President Obama, or President Hillary Clinton? Perhaps you would, in which case I stand down. But I can’t help but wonder.
Judith Levy is a novelist and the English-language editor at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
Claire’s response: Actually, Arun and I bickered about the Gaza/West Bank thing in the first draft. I took it out because I wanted to keep the focus on Western Sahara.
As for the significance of these deals, you’ve made the critical point yourself. It’s all in this sentence: “The latter is now a critical strategic goal not just for Israel but for the Sunni Arab world, now that the US has effectively thrown in the towel.”
In fact, it’s all in the last eight words of that sentence.
Peace agreements, wherever they are and whatever the cause, are to be celebrated. I do not give Trump credit for these agreements, however. This is not because of the visceral, emotional, stomach-turning revulsion I feel for him, though surely I feel that. It’s because I agree with you: These agreements are taking place because the US has thrown in the towel.
Who exactly threw in the towel? Well, I’d argue it was Obama and Trump, serially, but certainly, the election of Trump made it abundantly clear. Goodbye, United States.
“The Iranian regime,” you write, “is a profound threat that has brought Israel together with Gulf States that have watched Washington’s gradual retreat from the region.” Yes. I agree. Why would I give Trump credit for that? Why would you? You’re an American, too. Do you not sense something deeply disturbing about Washington’s retreat—not gradual, but precipitous—from the world?
The Gulf States now know, for sure, that the US isn’t going to do what the US did when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. No matter what. That US is gone. So of course they’re looking desperately for new allies. I mean, they’re incapable of subduing Yemen on their own. Who else could it be? It’s not going to be Europe, right? And China’s on Iran’s side. Russia? Give me a break: How do you think Tehran nearly accomplished a continuous Shiite crescent all the way to the Mediterranean?
Israel is the logical choice. Israelis clearly know which end of a gun to shoot from; and unlike some regional hegemons we could mention, they can distinguish Iran from Iraq on a map. So the up side: You get to take selfies with smiling Emiratis standing next to piles of Israeli fruit. The down side: You’re on your own against Iran, China, and possibly Russia, too—and your allies are the Emiratis.
As for Morocco? Yes, they hate Iran. They think they’re heretical swine. But Moroccans have got their hands full—especially since we may have just touched off a very bloody battle for hegemony over the Maghreb and Sahel, but let’s hope not. Still: They’re busy, one way or another. They’ll be no special use to you at all, beyond the usual eager cooperation to help round up al Qaeda and Shia heretics. If “allies against Iran—and China—and Russia, too” is the goal, you could have made peace with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and reaped roughly the same rewards.
That said, Morocco is in my view an excellent country and it’s great to make peace with Moroccans. Americans have always been at peace with Moroccans. Our first-ever ally. We should love them more than we do, I think. They’re super philo-semitic, too, apart from their Islamists. Everywhere I went, Moroccans absolutely knocked themselves out to tell me how much they loved Jews.
(Then again, that happens whenever I visit Austria—and frankly, it creeps me out a bit. “Indifference” is the attitude I prefer to Jewishness.)
An Italian Perspective
By Piero Castellano, Cosmopolitan Globalist
I can see that the splendor of Moroccan lobbying efforts worked pretty well with Claire’s imprinting. I recognize most of what she says as well-founded, but also biased.
Of course people in Western Sahara care about jobs, not politics. People in Casablanca do too. I didn’t see any reference in the article to Gdeim Izik, which many observers consider the first (swiftly and brutally suppressed) spark of the infamous Arab Spring. It was about jobs and economic conditions. The claim that a Sahrawi independence would threaten Mauritanian and Algerian borders is an old Moroccan one, and it’s ludicrous: Mauritania settled the matter long ago, ceding its share of former Spanish Sahara to Polisario (promptly occupied by Morocco), and Algeria would be quite happy to get rid of the refugees. But crucially, both Mauritania and Algeria give their own people a “right of self-determination” because both are democracies, as imperfect, coup-marred, and flawed as they are. I don’t see references to Morocco’s human rights record, nor the Sands War, when Morocco attempted to invade freshly-independent Algeria to annex the very area where Sahrawi refugee camps are now.
Also, while Arun mentions that every legal claim of Morocco over Western Sahara has been turned down by international courts, I don’t see any mention of the fact that Polisario has been recognized by the UN and the international community as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people and an interlocutor in the referendum issue. As per the Moroccan claim that refugees in Tindouf are ethnic Sahrawis of Algerian citizenship, it’s ludicrous, and thoroughly discounted by UNHCR et al.
The claim that Sahrawis in camps suffer is indeed true, they’ve lived as refugees for almost fifty years, in horrible conditions; they have become predisposed to coeliac disease, seemingly developed because of the poor diet based on humanitarian aid, but to say that they suffer from Polisario repression more serious than the Moroccan one is blatant propaganda, and international NGOs like Amnesty International have written ponderous reports on violations of human rights and there is no comparison.
It is indeed true that Polisario cannot lecture anyone on civil rights, as it’s administration is a one-party rule with tints of typical “liberation front” militarism, and that’s been justified, as in many similar cases, with the needs imposed by the dire situation in refugee camps and Algeria’s need to control a potential hornet’s nest of discontent and terrorism. Speaking of which, by the way, the Moroccan claim that Sahrawis in camps support and feed the ranks of Islamist terrorism has been not only refuted but proven false; on the contrary, some of the defectors from Polisario became notorious AQIM and other Islamist bands in the Sahel figures. The camps have even been attacked by such gangs. Jihadist propaganda is said to be actually censored in the camps, in one of the limitations of free speech blamed on Polisario.
About the left being fed up with the Polisario, (and the European left’s enamorment with anything that smells pro-Soviet, post-colonial, liberation-front, no-matter-what’s-right-before-everyone’s-eyes with Assad and the PKK), that’s certainly true of the French left, but just as certainly untrue for the Italian one—and especially the Spanish one.
Sahrawis were, and some still are, Spanish subjects. The issue is still extremely divisive and touchy in Spain. France supported—and some claim backed—Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara, while post-Franco Spain has debated its historical responsibility to the people of Western Sahara. In which language did you talk to those disgruntled Sahrawis, Claire? Even today, most Sahrawis speak Spanish, not French, as a foreign language, except those coming from or educated in Morocco. Sahrawis also claim, not without reason—but for the little I know this has never been the main issue in the conflict—that they are not Berbers, like the majority of Moroccans, but “true Arabs.” There are also some issues quite obscure to me, but I think I remember that Sahrawis do not recognize the Alaouite dynasty’s claim of descent from the Prophet. For many Moroccans, loyalty to the King is an almost religious matter, unlike loyalty to the Makhzen, and the resentment against Sahrawis aligned with the “godless” Polisario is genuine and palpable.
It’s also notable that Morocco was alleged to be one of the main CIA hubs for dark sites—where extraordinary renditions were held and “enhanced interrogations” conducted; the “black prison” in El Ayun is where Sahrawis campaigning for the referendum were detained and tortured, too.
This to conclude that while Morocco claims that the Polisario is akin to PKK as a separatist group (a comparison that doesn’t hold since, unlike PKK, Polisario only hit military personnel and installations and refrained from bombing and targeting civilians).
One thing it does have in common with the Kurdish question in Turkey is that democratic reforms, free and fair elections and, of course, “jobs” (as in, economic development of Western Sahara that doesn’t discriminate against local Sahrawis, disadvantaged by poorer education and political unreliability in favor of “true” Moroccans or pro-government Sahrawis) would most likely void the issue of much of its significance—other than the obvious resentments left by 45 years of occupation, conflict and repression.
A prominent Sahrawi activist (I don’t remember her name but there were many AI campaigns in her favor) once told me that the “real” reason the King (and crucially, the Makhzen) boycotted the UN referendum was the near-certainty that even pro-government Sahrawis and Moroccan “immigrants” in Western Sahara would have voted for independence to escape the oppressiveness and corruption of the Moroccan regime. Of course, there have been some changes since then, but as far as I know they are minor. Gdeim Izik was not a pro-Polisario nor a pro-independence protest, but it was brutally crushed and depicted that way because it was an extremely dangerous precedent (and indeed, it was followed by the very mild Moroccan “Spring,” promptly defused by economic reforms) not only for Western Sahara but for all of Morocco.
Finally, I am saddened and quite surprised that Claire was not given access to Sahrawi camps, I declined to go when I had the chance (and I know that I could go at any moment, if it wasn’t for the pandemic), but literally hordes of European journalists, volunteers, photographers, human rights watchdogs, even a puppet-master I once interviewed in Naples, go there when they want to—and this includes Italian right-wing, often rabidly anti-Polisario journalists. The rationale behind those visits is that conditions in the camp speak for themselves. I used to know scores of Sahrawi students, journalists, and artists living or visiting Italy regularly in connection with a refugee kids’ hospitality program to alleviate children’s hardship in the trying Saharan summer months. They were not shy of criticizing Polisario and its “old men” ruling elite, as any student would do in Europe, but they were adamant about the necessity of supporting their government until “Liberation.”
I also remember a few cases of journalists who were denied the Algerian visa necessary to go there, which might be more complicated than receiving an invitation from Polisario. The point behind Polisario’s policy of open doors and as much freedom as possible in semi-militarized refugee camps under constant threat from a flare-up of the conflict or a diminution of Algerian hospitality is that their most precious political capital is international recognition. An internal repression much milder than what Morocco blames baselessly on Polisario would be enough to make them lose support, and this is also the main reason for strictly avoiding terrorist acts against civilians.
Piero Castellano is a photographer and writer currently based in Genoa, Italy. He lived in Egypt, Turkey and Bosnia, and travels extensively, when pandemics are not occurring, in the MENA area.
Claire’s response: So, yeah, the Polisario’s administration is a one-party rule with tints of typical “liberation front” militarism. I can confirm that, based on the refugees to whom I spoke.
Morocco offered a compromise political solution for the Western Sahara in 2007—autonomy for the territory, under Moroccan sovereignty. This makes things (again) very unlike the Kurdish conflict. The plan was supported by three consecutive US administrations (Clinton, Bush, Obama). They’ve invested billions in the development of region. I saw this—propaganda tour it may have been, but they weren’t Potemkin factories, and they weren’t Potemkin regional councils, either. They were real. Either that, or they sent tens of thousands of incredibly skilled Moroccan actors to the region to build fake factories and pretend to sit on regional councils, but frankly, let’s go with Occam’s Razor.
Sahrawis there have Moroccan citizenship. Morocco is as much a democracy as Algeria and more of one than Mauritania.
You note that the “very mild Moroccan ‘Spring’ was promptly defused by economic reforms not only for Western Sahara but for all of Morocco” as if this is to Morocco’s discredit. To the contrary. Would you wish it had been defused the way Assad did it?
The Polisario was controlled by the same authoritarian leader, Mohammed Abdelaziz, for thirty years. There’s no freedom of speech, association, or movement in those camps. No independent civil society. No independent judiciary or political parties. They won’t allow the UN to conduct a census that would help it better provide relief assistance to the refugees. Eyewitnesses report that they routinely divert food aid intended for the camp populations, selling it on the black market. From a UNHCR inquiry:
The European Union’s Anti-Fraud Office then revealed a “well-organized, years-long” embezzlement by the Polisario of humanitarian aid designated for Sahrawi refugees. Their report was quite at odds with your observation that anyone’s allowed to visit and in fact seems to confirm my experience: It stated that the Polisario refused to give access and allow oversight by humanitarian organizations and maintained secret warehouses for the aid fraud. As noted in the Executive Summary:
Moreover, the fact that the Sahraoui authorities have not given free access to the members of the humanitarian organizations present on-site, and also have not allowed for checks to be performed on logistical and distribution chains, as well as the reported existence of secret storehouses, constitutes an element which corroborates the conclusion to be drawn as to fraudulent intent.
The allegations of human rights violations, monopolization and abuse of power, blackmailing, sequestering the refugee population in Tindouf, and squandering foreign aid are legion. For example:
The ex-Polisario member who also served as “governor of the Camps of Aousserd and Dakhla in Tindouf (southern Algeria)” said that the Sahrawi population living in the camps are held hostages against their will by the Polisario and the Algerian military security that use them as a propaganda means to mislead the international public opinion.
This conflict is not, sadly, about the Sahrawi people—who, by the way, spoke to me in an incomprehensible dialect of Arabic, which was translated for me into French. It’s about hegemonic rivalry between Algeria and Morocco.
I do not for a second believe the claim that “pro-government Sahrawis and Moroccan ‘immigrants’ in Western Sahara would have voted for independence to escape the oppressiveness and corruption of the Moroccan regime.” It may have been a propaganda tour, Piero, but I did see the place with my own eyes. And I did get well away from the people who were trying to show me how happy everyone was there. I wandered off and spoke to people in cafés, in parks, anywhere I could find people who spoke French. (And yes, this did prejudice the experiment, of course it did, but I just don’t speak Amazigh or Arabic and no one there speaks Spanish. Really.) People seemed to feel that yes, Morocco was doing okay by them, and yes, they were glad to be Moroccan.
Would they have told me otherwise? I don’t know. I do know that generally, even in the most repressive countries, people are quick to say to foreign journalists, “This place sucks. Tell the world.” People think foreign journalists have magical powers to solve their problems—as you know. (And how well you know that we don’t.)
I didn’t hear anything that made me think, “There’s a terrible problem here.” For what it’s worth. And I do know what “a terrible problem here” looks like.
If I had to choose, based on what I know, between being a Moroccan citizen or a citizen of the SADR?
That one’s easy. Please, God—let me be Moroccan.