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Western Sahara/Morocco: Can US President Biden undo Trump’s deal?

By Jihâd Gillon
Posted on Thursday, 17 December 2020 16:43

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington on 22 October 2019 © AP SIPA / Jose Luis Magana

President Trump's announcement of the US’ recognition of Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara has already been much written about. However, uncertainty remains about the specifics of this agreement.

Will Joe Biden reverse Donald Trump’s decision?

Can the next US president – who’s set to take office on 20 January 2021 – reverse Trump’s decision to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara? After all, the US supported the reappointment of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (Minurso) in October. Proclamations or presidential decrees, depending on their purpose, do not necessarily have the force of law and can, in principle, be revoked by the Supreme Court or Congress.

However, the US Constitution does grant the president virtually complete authority over foreign policy and state recognition. “Trump even has the exclusive right to recognise a state’s sovereignty over given territories. Congress cannot force him to contradict himself, but it can alter his decision,” says Shathil Nawaf Taqa, a lawyer specialised in comparative law.

READ MORE Morocco, Israel normalise relations after US-led deal says Trump

Biden may therefore, with these powers, withdraw this proclamation of recognition. “Logically, if he can recognise one thing, he can recognise the opposite,” says Taqa. However, he believes it unlikely that Biden will challenge Trump’s decision, since American history offers no precedent in this regard. The elected president has not yet spoken on the subject.

“Deal or no deal?”

Trump’s announcement of the US’ recognition of the kingdom’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara soon after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel, exemplifies the type of transactional “deal” that the US president is fond of.

Has Rabat gained this gesture of goodwill from the Americans in exchange for the establishment of relations with the Jewish state? Nasser Bourita, the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs, rejects this idea : “The American recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara was not made in exchange for the restoration of relations with Israel.”

According to The New York Times, however, businessman Yariv Elbaz has acted as an intermediary between Rabat and Washington since 2017 in order to reach an agreement on the two issues simultaneously. The American newspaper also reveals that there was an American investment project in Morocco made to the tune of $3bn, in its banking, tourism and energy sectors. An investment, according to a member of the Trump administration interviewed by the newspaper, which should not be linked to the re-establishment of relations between Morocco and Israel.

What sort of diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel?

According to a statement released by the royal cabinet, Morocco and Israel will “resume official talks and diplomatic relations as soon as possible”, without specifying the nature of these diplomatic relations. Even though Trump has tweeted that full diplomatic relations will be restored between Israel and Morocco, the latter wants to be more cautious.

READ MORE After the UAE, who is next to normalise relations with Israel?

The only step taken by Morocco so far towards “normalisation” – a term refuted by the Moroccan minister – has been to announce the reopening of the Israeli liaison office in Rabat, which was closed in 2000. There seems to be no plan, at least for the moment, for discussions to take place between ambassadors. The statement from the royal cabinet, however, insists on several occasions that Morocco’s position on the Palestinian cause remains “unchanged”, in particular on the status of Jerusalem whose significance for Muslims must be respected. The only certainty at this stage is the opening of direct lines of communication between Israel and Morocco, which will no doubt have to bypass Algeria.

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