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Netanyahu's new map flap: multiple political ironies

Well, this is ironic multiple ways. Israel was forced to apologize to Morocco after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seen in a video displaying a map of the Middle East an North Africa—that failed to show the occupied (and illegally annexed) territory of Western Sahara as within the kingdom's borders. Netanyahu brandished the map in a May 30 interview with a French TV channel, showing what he called "the Arab world" in green, a swath of near-contiguous territory from Iraq to Mauritania—contrasting small, isolated Israel, "the one and only Jewish state." The point, as usual, being Israel's supposed vulnerability and (by implication, at least) delegitimization of Palestinian claims—as if all Arabs were an undifferentiated mass and 7 million Palestinians could decamp for Lebanon or Egypt and be content. (The operative word in Israeli political rhetoric being "transfer.")

But the map, in an embarassing poitical faux pas, showed Western Sahara as a separate entity from Morocco—which began occupying the territory after Spain pulled out of the former "Spanish Sahara" in 1975, and has declared it unilaterally annexed. As in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the indigenous Arab inhabitants of the territory were not consulted and have waged a multi-generational resistance. In Western Sahara, these are the Sahrawi Arabs, who are ethnically and inguistically distinct from the dominant Arab people of Morocco who speak the Darija dialect.

The goof was especially dire because in 2020 Israel joined the US as the only two countries on Earth to recognize Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara, in exchange for Moroccan recognition of the Jewish state under the Trump administration-brokered Abraham Accords—a nice, cozy mutual betrayal of both the Palestinians and Sahrawi Arabs.

Following the requisite howls of protest from Rabat, the Israeli Foreign Ministry quickly tweeted an apology, in Arabic, the shamelessly obsequious full text of which was only quoted in full by (of course) the very pro-government Morocco World News: "Due to an unintended error, a huge media sensation was created regarding a map used by Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, in which Morocco appears cut off from its Sahara. [We] offer clarification to His Majesty King Mohammed VI, may God grant him victory, and to his esteemed people and government... Morocco is in its Sahara until God inherits the Earth and everything on it. We...apologize for this technical error. Israel and Morocco are brothers and sisters, and we will not back down from our historical recognition of the Moroccanity of the Sahara."

One tweeter noted how this affair has further enflamed anti-Israel sentiment in Morocco, already of course escalated due to the Gaza bombardment: "After daily protests against Israeli massacres in Gaza, popular pressure grows for #Morocco to break diplomatic ties with #Israel after PM Netanyahu brandished a map of the kingdom without the Western Sahara during tv interview that was aired last night on French media." (More coverage at MEETNA)

Of course there is an obvious hypocrisy to Moroccan protests that demand self-determination for the Palestinians but not the Sahrawi. The reactionary Moroccan monarchy is at least consistent in now havng betrayed the self-determination of both peoples! We may hope that there are some among the Moroccan protesters who take a consistent progressive position and also support self-determination for Western Sahara.

We can also note that Netanyahu's little public-relations snafu is unikely to win him any friends among the Sahrawi—because in addition to showing Western Sahara as separate from Morocco (which they would support) his map also showed it as not colored green—meaning not a part of "the Arab world." This can only be seen as an insult by the self-proclaimed independent government of the territory, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

The hypocrisy of Israel is also obvious here. Israeli commentators and hasbara agents are the first to play the "whataboutery" game—relativizing or distracting attention from the plight of the Palestinians by pointing to that of Kurds, Berbers, Nubians, Massalit and other stateless peoples oppressed under Arab regimes. But, as we now see, they are just as quick to completely betray them when those regimes recognize Israel and betray the Palestinians. Around it goes. Yet another example of how a global divide-and-rule racket is the essence of the state system.

The annexationist agendas of both Israel and Morocco mirror each other precisely in these displays of cartographic outrage. Nothing incites more Israeli scandalization than Arab or Palestinian maps that show all of historic Palestine as "Palestine," failing to recognize any such political entity as Israel. Such controversy even hit Brooklyn, New York, earlier this year when it was revealed that a teacher at Public School 261 in the neighborhood of Boerum Hill had put up a map on a classroom wall from the Qatar Foundation International, purporting to show the "Arab World" but with all of historic Palestine as an undivided territory labelled "Palestine." There was such a backlash from some Jewish parents at the school and their political enablers that PS 261's annual march to Brooklyn's Borough Hall in honor of Martin Luther King's birthday was cancelled this year—a despairingly stupid and cowardly move. (NYT)

Yet not four months earlier, on Sept. 25, 2023, Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York while holding up a map labeled "The New Middle East" that showed all of historic Palestine as an undivided territory labelled "Israel," failing to show any such political entity as Palestine. This of course won requisite protest from Arab leaders, but ony silence from the same political forces fueling outrage over the map displayed at PS 261. Not a lot of consistency here. (MEMOToI)

Indeed, a study commissioned by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land in 2013 found that the vast majority of maps in Israeli and Palestinian school textbooks omit the existence of the other entity, leading to children growing up with "an internal representation of their homeland, in which one does not include the other." (The Guardian) This mutual geography denial is not exactly a recipe for peace—even if we ultimately support a single democratic state in historic Palestine.

Unfortunately, even after his hubristic move at the United Nations (and genocidal assault on Gaza), Netanyahu has just been invited by US lawmakers to address a joint session of Congress. Shame on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries for joining with Speaker of the House Mike Johnson and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in extending this invitation. The good news is that many Democrats are breaking ranks. Bernie Sanders tweeted: "Benjamin Netanyahu is a war criminal. He should not be invited to address a joint meeting of Congress. I certainly will not attend." And even former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has dissented from the invitation.

Netanyahu's upcoming gig on Capitol Hill will mark the fourth time he has addressed a joint session of Congress, making him the first foreign leader to reach this dubious watermark. Nearly 60 Democrats boycotted Netanyahu's last address in 2015, orchestrated by Republicans over the head of then-president Barack Obama as a stratagem against his Iran nuclear deal. (Politico)