Pompeo says U.S. began work to set up consulate in Western Sahara

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department said on Thursday it began the process to set up a U.S. consulate in Western Sahara, after President Donald Trump’s administration this month recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the region.

In a departure from longstanding U.S. policy, Washington agreed to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, a desert region where a decades-old territorial dispute has pitted Morocco against the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, a breakaway movement that seeks to establish an independent state.

The recognition was part of a U.S.-brokered deal in which Morocco became the fourth Arab country after the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan to normalize ties with Israel in the past four months.

“Effective immediately, we are inaugurating a virtual presence post for Western Sahara, with a focus on promoting economic and social development, to be followed soon by a fully functioning consulate,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

“This virtual presence post will be managed by the U.S. Embassy in Rabat,” Pompeo said, adding that Washington would be continuing to support  political negotiations  to  resolve  the issues between Morocco and the Polisario within the framework of Morocco’s autonomy plan.

Washington’s support for Moroccan sovereignty over the desert territory represents the biggest policy concession the United States has made so far in its quest to win Arab recognition of Israel.

The series of normalization deals have been driven in part by U.S.-led efforts to present a united front against Iran and roll back Tehran’s regional influence.

Western nations and the U.N. have long called for a referendum to resolve the dispute.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Richard Chang)

U.N. Security Council to talk Western Sahara after Trump policy switch

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.N. Security Council is planning to discuss Western Sahara on Monday, diplomats said, after U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed region in return for the kingdom normalizing ties with Israel.

Trump’s announcement last week was a departure from longstanding U.S. policy on Western Sahara. A closed-door U.N. Security Council meeting on the situation was requested by Germany, diplomats said.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, sent a copy of Trump’s proclamation recognizing “that the entire Western Sahara territory is part of the Kingdom of Morocco” to U.N. chief Antonio Guterres and the Security Council on Tuesday.

The United States had supported a 1991 ceasefire between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, a breakaway movement that seeks to establish Western Sahara as an independent state. The ceasefire is monitored by U.N. peacekeepers.

The region has effectively been split by an earthen wall separating an area controlled by Morocco that it claims as its southern provinces, and territory controlled by the Polisario with a U.N.-mandated buffer zone between them.

U.N. talks have long failed to broker an agreement on how to decide on self-determination. Morocco wants an autonomy plan under Moroccan sovereignty. The Polisario wants a U.N.-backed referendum including on the question of independence.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “position remains unchanged,” said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric last week.

“He remains convinced that a solution to the question of Western Sahara is possible, in accordance” U.N. Security Council resolutions, Dujarric said.

In October, the 15-member Security Council extended the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as MINURSO, for one year, adopting a resolution that “emphasizes the need to achieve a realistic, practicable and enduring political solution to the question of Western Sahara based on compromise.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Israel, Morocco agree to normalize relations in latest U.S.-brokered deal

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Israel and Morocco agreed on Thursday to normalize relations in a deal brokered with the help of the United States, making Morocco the fourth Arab country to set aside hostilities with Israel in the past four months.

As part of the agreement, U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, where there has been a decades-old territorial dispute with Morocco pitted against the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, a breakaway movement that seeks to establish an independent state in the territory.

Trump sealed the agreement in a phone call on Thursday with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, the senior U.S. official said.

Morocco is the fourth country since August to strike a deal aimed at normalizing relations with Israel. The others were the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

Under the agreement, Morocco will establish full diplomatic relations and resume official contacts with Israel, grant overflights and also direct flights to and from Israel for all Israelis.

“They are going to reopen their liaison offices in Rabat and Tel Aviv immediately with the intention to open embassies. And they are going to promote economic cooperation between Israeli and Moroccan companies,” White House senior adviser Jared Kushner told Reuters.

“Today the administration has achieved another historic milestone. President Trump has brokered a peace agreement between Morocco and Israel – the fourth such agreement between Israel and an Arab/Muslim nation in four months.

“Through this historic step, Morocco is building on its longstanding bond with the Moroccan Jewish community living in Morocco and throughout the world, including in Israel. This is a significant step forward for the people of Israel and Morocco.

“It further enhances Israel’s security, while creating opportunities for Morocco and Israel to deepen their economic ties and improve the lives of their people.”

A White House statement on the phone call between Trump and the king of Morocco said Trump “reaffirmed his support for Morocco’s serious, credible, and realistic autonomy proposal as the only basis for a just and lasting solution to the dispute over the Western Sahara territory.”

“And as such the president recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara territory,” the statement said.

Palestinians have been critical of the normalization deals, saying Arab countries have set back the cause of peace by abandoning a longstanding demand that Israel give up land for a Palestinian state before it can receive recognition.

Much of the momentum behind the deal-making has been to present a united front against Iran and roll back its regional influence.

The Trump White House has tried to get Saudi Arabia to sign on to a normalization deal with Israel, believing if the Saudis agreed other Arab nations would follow, but the Saudis have signaled they are not ready.

One more Middle East breakthrough is possible. Last week Kushner and his team traveled to Saudi Arabia and Qatar seeking an end to a three-year rift between Doha and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

A tentative deal has been reached on this front but it was far from clear whether a final agreement to end a blockade of Qatar will be sealed. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have maintained a diplomatic, trade and travel embargo on Qatar since mid-2017.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Editing by Howard Goller)