Today, we fish, trade and mine in Western Sahara, defeat Bibi in Israel, and revise US immigration policy.

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Carlos Santamaria

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Today, we fish, trade and mine in Western Sahara, defeat Bibi in Israel, and revise US immigration policy.

Thank you for reading Signal. If you're a fan, why don't you sign up a friend?

Carlos Santamaria


Morocco and Spain have spent the past two weeks at loggerheads over Madrid allowing the leader of the independence movement for Western Sahara, a former Spanish territory claimed by Morocco, to get medical treatment for COVID in a Spanish hospital. Polisario Front chief Brahim Ghali has now left the country, but the Moroccans are still furious.

Indeed, Rabat's initial response was to open its border gates to allow a deluge of thousands of migrants to overwhelm the Spanish border in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast. Although that crisis ended in a matter of days, the wider issue that caused it in the first place remains unresolved.

Why does Morocco care so much about this sparsely populated desert territory, and why is it now pushing so hard to gain full control of Western Sahara?

First, a bit of history. Western Sahara, long populated by nomadic tribes, was administered by Spain from 1884 until 1975. Morocco and the native Sahrawis, represented by the Polisario Front, later fought a bloody war that ended in a 1991 UN-backed ceasefire agreement which called for an independence referendum that Rabat has largely ignored. Since then, Western Sahara has been in limbo — Morocco now controls 80 percent of the territory, including the coastline, and the Sahrawis control a thin strip bordering Algeria and Mauritania.

But that small chunk of land is immensely important for the Moroccans because it's the main route for overland trade with the rest of Africa via Mauritania. Morocco's much longer border with regional rival Algeria, which backs the Polisario Front and hosts thousands of Sahrawi refugees, has been closed for almost 30 years.

Morocco also needs Western Sahara's minerals, mainly its phosphate rock riches. Including the disputed territory's estimated deposits — which the Moroccans are already mining in the areas they control — Morocco accounts for three-quarters of the world's reserves of this scarce mineral, used to make synthetic fertilizer for agriculture.

And then there's fish. A lot of fish. So much that Morocco is eager to share it with EU fishing vessels, for lucrative fees. But a wide-ranging trade agreement between Morocco and the European Union has been held up since 2018 because of a dispute over access to waters off Western Sahara. Moreover, if there's fish, perhaps there are also untapped offshore oil and gas.

Thank you, Donald Trump. During the last weeks of the Trump administration, the US became the first UN member state to recognize Morocco's claim over Western Sahara, reportedly in exchange for normalizing ties with Israel. Recognition by the world's most powerful nation was a huge win for Rabat, which now feels emboldened to test how hard it can push other countries to do the same, particularly Spain and the broader EU. And Morocco now seems to have the upper hand, as Turkey often does when it successfully weaponizes migrants to get what it wants from the Europeans.

The problem for Spain and the EU is that they need Morocco more than Morocco needs them. For Spain, Moroccan cooperation is crucial to stemming the flow of African migrants to its borders. The EU, for its part, is deeply concerned about those migrants using Spain as a springboard to enter other EU countries. Brussels also wants to sign a trade deal with Rabat that includes Western Saharan fisheries to offset fishing rights lost to Brexit.

Morocco is presumably happy to help protect the Spanish border, and let EU vessels fish in their waters, and get hard cash in return. But the money is not enough anymore. For Rabat, full sovereignty over Western Sahara is as much of an existential issue as illegal immigration is to Madrid and Brussels.

Looking ahead. Spain's current leftwing government can't afford another migrant crisis that'll give more ammunition to the anti-immigration, far-right Vox party. And the EU has learned its lesson from dealing with Turkey on refugees. Morocco's leverage over both means that Sahrawis' pursuit of self-determination is all but assured to take a backseat for the Europeans.



Israel's new, weird government: Israel's political class never misses an opportunity for dramatic effect. And that's exactly what happened Wednesday when Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party informed Israel's president that he had successfully cobbled together a coalition government just minutes before a procedural deadline at midnight. It's an historic outcome, ending the political reign of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after 15 years in power. The new coalition government will be rotational: Naftali Bennett, head of the rightwing Yamina party, will serve as PM until 2023, at which point he will switch roles with Lapid, who will serve as foreign minister until then. The government will be one of the most ideologically and religiously-diverse in Israel's history, including Jewish nationalist parties, right wing politicians who defected from Bibi's camp, left-wing parties, as well as Raam, an Islamist Arab party. Plenty of challenges await the new government, and Bibi is surely going to be a thorn in its side as head of the opposition in the Knesset. But after endless election cycles, many Israelis are rejoicing that they finally have a (fractious) new government.

African groups isolate Mali: The African Union (AU) on Wednesday suspended Mali from membership following a coup last week, the second in the West African country in just nine months. The AU, an umbrella group of 55 African nations representing the continent, threatened to impose sanctions if Mali does not move to reinstall the previous joint civilian military government. This comes a week after the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also suspended Mali and threatened to impose sanctions. (ECOWAS, which established a free trade area, has the mandate to impose hard-hitting regional trade restrictions.) Last August, Mali's democratically elected government was toppled in a coup led by Col. Assimi Goita, who emerged from that dustup as interim vice president. Now, he has detained the transitional president, prime minister and defense minister for not consulting him before forming a new government and seized power himself. Economic sanctions would be devastating for Mali, a poor, landlocked country that has been battling an Islamic insurgency in the north that's displaced half a million people in recent years. Nine months ago, the junta caved and agreed to hold elections in 2022 in exchange for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions. Will Goita buckle this time?

Attention passengers, Open Skies is now closed: The Russian upper house has voted to ditch the decades-old Open Skies Treaty, a major post-Cold War arms control pact that permits the US, Russia, and 32 other (mostly European) countries to conduct short-notice, unarmed surveillance flights over each other's territory. The Trump administration withdrew the US from the agreement last year, over concerns that Russia was blocking US and NATO-member flights. While then-candidate Joe Biden criticized that move as "short-sighted," he changed his mind once in office, deciding last week not to re-enter the pact for the very same reasons. Russia has long complained that the US, for its part, blocks flights over Alaska, and most NATO members are keen to preserve the treaty, which is viewed as an important confidence-building measure. But Russian President Putin is almost certain to sign the withdrawal order, likely ahead of his upcoming summit with President Biden on June 16 in Geneva.



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We write a lot about US foreign policy in Signal, but here's a basic question: why should you care about what the US does abroad? To answer it, GZERO has teamed up with the Carnegie Corporation to host a special event called Far Away and Close to Home: How US Foreign Policy Impacts All Americans. Join us for that conversation, moderated by PBS Newshour anchor Judy Woodruff, which will feature GZERO President Ian Bremmer, New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter, and other guests who will offer their insights on the ways that questions of climate change, immigration, racial justice, and jobs are all tied to US foreign policy. Learn more here.



7: Seven EU countries — Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Croatia, and Poland — have rolled out a COVID vaccination certificate meant to facilitate easy travel within the European Union. The system, which documents whether a person has been fully vaccinated, recovered from COVID-19 or tested negative within 72 hours, will be fully operational throughout all 27 EU states by July 1.

68,000: The Biden administration has officially scrapped a Trump-era immigration rule that required around 68,000 migrants seeking asylum in the US to remain in Mexico while awaiting their court dates. The Biden administration says the Trump policy failed in its stated goal of addressing asylum backlogs.

3: Lebanon's economic crisis will soon be amongst the worst three global crises since the mid-nineteenth century, according to a new World Bank report. Sustained financial and economic stagnation, compounded by last year's Beirut port explosion and fallout from COVID, have resulted in soaring inflation and poverty. "Lebanon is sinking," the report says.

25: A sinking ship off the coast of Sri Lanka, which has been burning for weeks after catching fire upon leaving an Indian port, was carrying at least 25 tons of nitric acid used to make explosives and other chemicals. Environmentalists say that if the abandoned ship sinks, it will wreak havoc on marine life in the area.



This edition of Signal was written by Gabrielle Debinski, Carlos Santamaria, and Alex Kliment. Art by Gabriella Turrisi. Spiritual counsel from free beer.