Morocco has defended its decision to normalise ties with Israel, saying the kingdom's bilateral relations with Israel were "already normal" before the US-brokered deal was announced.
Moroccan foreign minister Nasser Bourita told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth that his country's ties with Israel are "special and can't be compared to the relations that Israel has with any other Arab country".
Under fire for breaching the 2002 Arab League summit resolution that normalisation can proceed only once a Palestinian state is established, Mr Bourita said that Morocco "has an important history with [its] Jewish community", which is currently 3,000-strong, and the 700,000 Israeli Jews of Moroccan descent.
“From our perspective, we aren’t talking about normalisation because relations were already normal. We’re talking about relations we already had. They have never stopped,” he added.
Relations were, however, semi-covert until the 1990s when Morocco established a low-level office in Tel Aviv once peace talks began between Palestinians and Israelis. The office closed in 2002 during the second Palestinian uprising.
Nevertheless, ties continued on the old basis until last week when King Mohammed VI agreed to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. In exchange, the US granted recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
The transaction was meant to mollify the 76 per cent of Moroccans who oppose relations with Israel.
Morocco has joined the Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in normalising ties with Israel, countries where comparable majorities are opposed to the move.
Western Sahara has been in dispute since 1973 when the Polisario Front – recognised by the UN and 38 countries as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people – began fighting for independence, first from colonial Spain and then Morocco, which annexed the territory in 1975.
Neighbouring Algeria backs the Polisorio Front and hosts its government-in-exile, which last month declared an end to a three-decade-old ceasefire after Morocco launched military operations into a buffer zone between Moroccan- and Polisario-controlled zones.
The timing of the US initiative adds support to the Moroccan incursions.
Polisario officials condemned the deal while the Algerian foreign minister argued it “has no legal effect”, violated UN resolutions on the conflict, and “would undermine” efforts to promote a “real political process”.
Moroccan prime minister Saad-Eddine el-Othmani, who heads the fundamentalist Justice and Development party, lashed out at White House policies on Palestine but revealed the king had told Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas that Rabat's "position in support of the Palestinian cause remains unshakeable, and that Morocco places it at the same level as the Sahara issue".
Egypt, the Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, the EU, Spain and the Czech Republic praised the normalisation deal. The Palestinian Authority has remained silent while the Palestinian public, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Iran condemned it as a betrayal. Palestinian activists see it as violating the rights of both the Palestinian and Sahrawi peoples.
The ruling Algerian National Liberation Front “denounced and condemned” the trade-off as “giving up the inalienable right of the Palestinian people [to independence] in exchange for obtaining illusory sovereignty over occupied Western Sahara”.
The party also reiterated its backing for Sahrawi resistance and for conducting a referendum to determine the fate of Western Sahara.