Kushner joins Israelis on landmark visit to Morocco

U.S. White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, speaks to journalists after U.S. Ambassador David Friedman unveiled a plaque at the U.S. embassy designating the Kushner Courtyard, seen at right, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, Pool) (Maya Alleruzzo)

BEN-GURION INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT – 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 U.S.-brokered normalization 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 normalize relations with Israel in historic agreements that also brought them major favors from Washington.

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As part of the deal, Morocco, which is home to a small but centuries-old Jewish community and has long welcomed Israeli tourists, secured U.S. recognition of its 1975 annexation of the disputed region of Western Sahara, which is not recognized by the United Nations.

The U.S. decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara has drawn criticism from the U.N. as well as American allies in Africa and beyond. African observers have said it could destabilize the broader region, already struggling against Islamist insurgencies and migrant trafficking. Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, who served as U.N. envoy to the Western Sahara, has called it “an astounding retreat from the principles of international law and diplomacy.”

Israel has traditionally backed the U.N. position and has not said whether it will join the U.S. in recognizing 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 U.S. 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 U.N. 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 U.S. 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 normalization 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 normalization 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 U.S. 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 U.S. sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets to the Gulf country. Sudan was removed from the U.S. list of terrorism sponsors, paving the way for much-needed U.S. 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. The former Spanish colony the size of Colorado, with a population estimated at 350,000 to 500,000, is believed to have considerable offshore oil deposits and mineral resources.

The accords have also contributed to the severe isolation and weakening of the Palestinians by eroding a longstanding Arab consensus that recognition of Israel should only be given in return for concessions in the peace process.

The Trump administration has given unprecedented support to Israel by moving the U.S. Embassy to contested Jerusalem, abandoning U.S. opposition to West Bank settlements and recognizing Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in the 1967 war.

The Trump Mideast plan, authored by Kushner, overwhelmingly favored Israel and would have allowed it to keep nearly all of east Jerusalem and up to a third of the West Bank. Israel seized both territories in the 1967 war, and the Palestinians want them for their future state — a position with wide international support.

Critics say the U.S. recognition of Israeli control over the Golan and Moroccan control of Western Sahara undermine a bedrock principle of international law — the prohibition against seizing territory by force. Supporters say the accords recognize the reality on the ground and seek to banish age-old enmities to the past.

Biden is opposed to annexation and has vowed to adopt a more even-handed approach to the Mideast conflict, including restoring aid to the Palestinians and pressing for renewed negotiations.

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