The broad strokes of the story are familiar: a European power colonizes an ethnically diverse territory, but withdraws following a local insurgency. The power vacuum is swiftly replaced by a deadly conflict over sovereignty between a newly independent state that claims historic rights to the land and the indigenous, stateless people living in it. The state actor sends settlers into the territory, establishing “facts on the ground” that shift the demographic balance and the outcome of a future peace agreement. The international community recognizes the weaker side’s right to self-determination, but the support is mostly verbal. A wall goes up. Two intifadas break out. Multiple peace initiatives are launched throughout the 1990s and 2000s – all flounder.
If, as you read the above description, you are shaking your head over a controversial word choice or historic gloss that misrepresents the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rest easy. This is a description of the Western Sahara conflict. Any resemblance to our own conflict is purely coincidental – or was, until the American administration chose to incentivize the normalization of Israeli-Moroccan diplomatic relations with official recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in the Western Sahara, thereby rejecting Sahrawi aspirations for a state of their own in the contested territory.
Tolstoy’s opening axiom in Anna Karenina is as applicable for peoples as it is for families: every unhappy conflict is unhappy in its own way. Our conflict has religious dimensions; the dispute in the Western Sahara does not. Israel legitimizes its settlement project through the ancient indigenous presence of Jews in the West Bank, while Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara is based on evidence of old allegiances between Sahrawi tribes and the Moroccan sultan. The Sahrawi are now a demographic minority in the Western Sahara, while Palestinians remain the majority on the other side of the Green Line.
Yet, despite the differences, the similarities are striking, and – now that the two conflicts have been explicitly tied together through the recent deal – important. The struggle for self-determination in both conflicts is often violent, the repressive state response often disproportionate. Supporting government policy in the occupied territories has become a mark of patriotism, while those who oppose it are branded traitors (here, too, the differences are important: the potentially severe repercussions in Morocco for voicing dissent cannot be compared to Israel, where criticizing the occupation makes you unpopular, not criminal). And, finally, the current US administration has chosen to officially align itself with one side of the conflict, essentially declaring a winner in a direct repudiation of diplomatic precedent and international law.
Israel is not responsible for US diplomatic policy vis-à-vis Morocco, and it would be foolish to turn down an opportunity for formal cooperation with such an important regional player. Anyone who wishes to see a secure, flourishing, and peaceful Israel will be excited about the prospect of peace with another Arab country. That said, context matters, and it’s important to acknowledge the consequences of the price tag that Morocco has put upon normalization. Normalizing peace should be celebrated. Normalizing the triumph of power over the right of self-determination, however, should give pause to anyone who believes that the Jewish people have a right to statehood, not to mention those who maintain the same right for Palestinians. The recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in the Western Sahara by a major world power is a blow to stateless people everywhere, and should serve as a warning to weaker states in possession of territory eyed by strong neighbors as well. Israel once numbered among the latter, and could again. The trend towards recognizing unilateral applications of sovereignty over disputed territory is a trend that undermines international law as well as peaceful and bilateral conflict resolution. It is not in the long-term interest of any individual, people, or state that values progress towards a more just and stable world.