US begins work to set up consulate in disputed Western Sahara, Pompeo says

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Morocco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita (R) during his visit to Rabat, Morocco, on December 5, 2019. (Photo by AFP)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says Washington has started the process to set up a consulate in Western Sahara, just weeks after the outgoing administration of President Donald Trump recognized Morocco's sovereignty over the disputed desert region in the wake of the African country’s normalization of ties with Israel.

“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,” Pompeo said in a statement on Thursday.

“This virtual presence post will be managed by the US Embassy in Rabat,” he added, asserting that Washington would be continuing to support  political negotiations  to  resolve  the decades-old territorial dispute between Morocco and the Algeria-backed and pro-independence Polisario Front within the framework of Morocco's autonomy plan. 

Morocco and Israel agreed on December 10 to normalize relations in a deal brokered by the United States, making the North African country the fourth Arab state this year to strike a deal aimed at establishment of relations with Israel. The others were the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

Trump sealed the agreement in a phone call with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI. As part of the agreement, the US president agreed to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara region.

Algeria later rejected Trump's stance, saying the step would undermine efforts to end the conflict over the desert territory.

The Algerian Foreign Ministry said the US decision “has no legal effect because it contradicts UN resolutions, especially UN Security Council resolutions on Western Sahara.”

“The proclamation would undermine the de-escalation efforts made at all levels in order to pave the way for launching a real political process,” the ministry said in a statement.

The Polisario condemned “in the strongest terms” Trump’s attempt to give to Morocco “that which does not belong to it.”

“Trump’s decision does not change the legal nature of the Sahara issue because the international community does not recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara,” it said in a statement.

Additionally, the Palestinian Hamas resistance movement reacted to announcement that Morocco will normalize relations with Israel, denouncing the deal.

“This is a sin and it doesn’t serve the Palestinian people. The Israeli occupation uses every new normalization deal to increase its aggression against the Palestinian people and increase its settlement expansion,” Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesman said.

Moroccan FM: Normalization talks with Israel began in 2018

Meanwhile, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita told Israeli i24 News television network on Thursday that his country’s normalization talks with the Tel Aviv regime started in 2018, and that the key player in supporting the process was King Mohammed VI.

“Since 2018, there have been many contacts, according to the instructions of His Majesty. His Majesty spoke with the US president and sent delegations to the United States, not only to meet with US officials, but also with the Israelis,” he said.

Bourita also praised the US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, alleging that relations with Israel do not conflict with Morocco's support for the Palestinian cause.

Israeli envoys arrived in Morocco on December 22 to meet its king and hammer out the upgrade in ties.

The Israeli delegation, led by national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, was accompanied by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and architect of Arabs’ normalization deals with Israel.

Four bilateral deals were signed between Israel and Morocco, centering on direct air links, water management, connecting financial systems and a visa waiver arrangement for diplomats.

‘Morocco-Israel direct flights to kick off in two to three months’

Moroccan Minister of Tourism Nadia Fettah Alaoui said direct flights between Morocco and Israel are expected to be launched within two to three months.

“We welcome all Israeli tourists who want to come to Morocco,” Morocco’s official Maghreb Arabe Press news agency quoted the minister as saying on Thursday.

Fettah Alaoui added that her department has started a study on the Israeli tourism market as well as preparing special tourist guides.

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