Kushner has driven Trump’s Middle East push that saw the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco normalise ties with Israel in contentious deals that saw Washington doling out major favours.
Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner has led a delegation from Israel to Morocco on the first known direct flight since the two countries agreed to establish full diplomatic ties earlier this month.
The visit on Tuesday is part of a series of controversial US-brokered normalisation accords with Arab countries under the influence of America.
Kushner, a silent advocate for Israel and President Donald Trump's son-in-law, has overseen the diplomatic push that saw the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco normalise relations with Israel in controversial agreements that in-return brought them major favours from Washington.
Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara
As part of the deal, Morocco, which is home to a small but centuries-old Jewish community and has long welcomed Israeli tourists, secured US recognition of its 1975 annexation of the disputed region of Western Sahara, which is not recognised by the United Nations.
The US decision to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara has drawn criticism from the UN as well as American allies in Africa and beyond. African observers have said it could destabilise the broader region, already struggling against insurgencies and migrant trafficking.
Former US Secretary of State James Baker, who served as UN envoy to the Western Sahara, has called it “an astounding retreat from the principles of international law and diplomacy”.
Israel has traditionally backed the UN position and has not said whether it will join the US in recognising Moroccan control over the area.
After U.S. brokered peace deal, El Al Airlines operates first Israel-Morocco flight on December 22, 2020 ✌️ pic.twitter.com/NyUx6RBbJZ— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) December 22, 2020
Meeting with King Mohammed VI
Joining Kushner was the head of Israel's delegation, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat. Both men were expected to meet with Morocco's King Mohammed VI and other top officials.
The delegations were expected to restore low-level relations between Israel and Morocco that existed in the 1990s and sign several cooperation agreements, including the establishment of direct flights, said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat.
“The goal is to move the relationship from a low level to full diplomatic relations," he said. He said there was no firm timeline for this process.
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 Palestine's Second Intifada 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 controversial ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
The so-called normalisation accords with Israel have been shunned by both the Arab world and Israelis, with critics claiming it a matter of payouts and attempts at political credibility.
Saudi Arabia, a regional power with close ties to Morocco, has given its tacit support for the normalisation 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 move supported 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 US 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 US sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets to the Gulf country. Sudan was removed from the US list of terrorism sponsors, paving the way for much-needed US 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, which is surrounded by a powerful Israeli lobby, has given unprecedented support to Israel by moving the US Embassy to contested Jerusalem, abandoning US opposition to West Bank settlements and recognising Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights, which it illegally seized from Syria in the 1967 war.
The Trump Mideast plan, authored by Kushner, overwhelmingly favoured 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, which was strongly condemned internationally, but Israel continued to build illegal settlements across it.
Critics and international law experts say the US 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.
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, but it's not yet certain whether he's ready to go against the powerful US-Israel lobby to achieve such a task.