Kushner joins Israelis on landmark visit to Morocco

Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner led a delegation from Israel to Morocco on Tuesday on the first known direct flight since the two countries agreed to establish full diplomatic ties earlier this month as part of a series of US-brokered normalisation accords with Arab countries. Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, has overseen the diplomatic push that saw the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco normalise relations with Israel in historic agreements that also brought them major favors from Washington.

As part of the deal, Morocco, which is home to a small but centuries-old Jewish community and has long welcomed Israeli tourists, secured US recognition of its 1975 annexation of the disputed region of Western Sahara, which is not recognized by the United Nations. The US decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara has drawn criticism from the UN as well as American allies in Africa and beyond. African observers have said it could destabilise the broader region, already struggling against Islamist insurgencies and migrant trafficking.

Former US Secretary of State James Baker, who served as UN envoy to the Western Sahara, has called it ”an astounding retreat from the principles of international law and diplomacy.” Israel has traditionally backed the UN position and has not said whether it will join the US in recognising Moroccan control over the area. Joining Kushner was the head of Israel’s delegation, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat. Both men met with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and other top officials.

Speaking to reporters, Kushner described the meetings as ”enormously productive.” ”Morocco and Israel are making huge strides on their commitments to resume full diplomatic relations, promote economic cooperation and to reopen their liaison offices very quickly,” he said. Kushner also defended the US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, saying it was ”rejecting the failed status quo which benefits no one.” He called on both sides to work with the UN in implementing a proposal to give the people of the territory broad autonomy.

”Genuine autonomy is the only feasible option, but it will take work,” Kushner said. The delegations signed a joint declaration pledging to quickly begin direct flights, promote economic cooperation, reopen liaison offices and move toward ”full diplomatic, peaceful and friendly relations.” Adam Boehler, chief executive of the US international development and finance corporation, said he expected the visit to yield huge trade benefits by bringing an existing relationship out into the open.

”We’ve been doing a lot of legwork looking at investment in Morocco,” he said. ”They’re a gateway to Africa, they’ve been a great ally to the United States, they have a great investment climate. So I think you’re going to see obviously a multi billion dollar memorandum coming out of this but also some individual investments announced.” Before Israel’s establishment in 1948, Morocco was home to a large Jewish population, many of whose ancestors migrated to North Africa from Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition. Today, hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews trace their lineage to Morocco, and a small community of Jews, estimated at several thousand people, continues to live there.

During the 1990s, Israel and Morocco established low-level diplomatic relations, but Morocco closed its representative office in Tel Aviv after the eruption of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000. Even so, the two countries have maintained good behind-the-scenes contacts, and some 30,000 to 50,000 Israelis continue to visit Morocco each year. On the tarmac in Israel, Kushner said that he hopes the delegation’s visit will ”pave the way for another warm peace between Israel and Morocco,” pointing to the emerging ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Ben-Shabbat, whose family immigrated to Israel from Morocco, said before takeoff that ”history is being written before our eyes.” Israelis of all backgrounds have celebrated the normalisation accords after decades in which their country was shunned by the Arab world over its still-unresolved conflict with the Palestinians. Saudi Arabia, a regional power with close ties to Morocco, has given its tacit support for the normalisation accords and could be next. The agreements, billed as the ”Abraham Accords” after the biblical patriarch revered by Muslims and Jews, were a major foreign policy achievement by the Trump administration. President-elect Joe Biden has welcomed the agreements even as he has vowed to pursue different policies in the region, including returning the US to Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

But the agreements are all with countries that are geographically distant from Israel and have played a minor role, if any, in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Critics say they came at a steep price. The agreement with the UAE paved the way for the controversial US sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets to the Gulf country. Sudan was removed from the US list of terrorism sponsors, paving the way for much-needed US and international aid but dividing the Sudanese as they negotiate a fragile transition to democracy.

The agreement with Morocco deals a major setback to those in Western Sahara who have fought for independence and want a referendum on the territory’s future..

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