As the Trump administration seeks to clinch another diplomatic breakthrough ahead of the November election, it has zeroed in on Sudan. Exerting heavy pressure on it to normalize relations Israel, it has announced Sudan’s long-awaited removal from the US list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, a major component in a larger package of incentives. Although engaging in diplomatic high-handedness for the purpose of brokering peace deals is legitimate practice in international affairs, the risks in this case are considerable, both to Sudan’s political future and to the very viability of peace between it and Israel.
Certainly, peaceful relations between Sudan and Israel are in the long-term interests of both parties, as indeed of the US and other regional and global stakeholders.
For Israel, those interests are foremost security and geo-strategic ones. Owing to its location in the Horn of Africa and Red Sea region, Sudan has been of considerable concern to Israel from the outset. Over the decades, Israel forged covert ties with a range of Sudanese power players for a variety of purposes – from destabilizing Nasser’s regime in Egypt to training militias for the overthrow of the Khomeini regime in Iran to assisting in the evacuation of Ethiopian (Beta Israel) Jews stranded in Sudanese refugee camps. When, between 1985 and 2015, Khartoum allied itself with Tehran and began serving as a conduit for smuggled Iranian munitions to Palestinian militants, especially in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, Israel staged numerous air strikes inside Sudan against suspected weapons convoys and at least one arms factory.
Since Sudan has cut its ties with Tehran in 2016 and, even more promisingly, replaced the regime of longtime strongman Omar al-Bashir with a Western-oriented transitional government in 2018, it has ceased posing a threat to Israel and once again begun offering strategic opportunities. In the context of peace, close cooperation with Sudan could extend Israel’s Red Sea maritime corridor further south and facilitate any number of military and intelligence operations.
And while normalization with Sudan is not expected to have the same dramatic impact for Israel that the recently signed Abraham Accords did, its psychological importance should not be underestimated. The site of the Arab League summit that issued the “three nos” resolution – no peace, no recognition, no negotiation – immediately following the 1967 War, “Khartoum” has been shorthand for Arab rejectionism of Israel for over 50 years. Indeed, far from signifying an obstacle, Sudan would now open a “passage to Africa,” providing Israelis friendly territorial contiguity across the African continent. For the first time ever, Israelis would have the possibility, at least in theory, to drive their car from their home all the way to the Cape of Good Hope. For a nation shaped by the mentality of an island in hostile seas, this is, literally, a breakthrough.
For Sudan, normalization with Israel promises significant material rewards. On the bilateral level, Israeli trade and technology transfer could be of huge value to the country’s agriculture sector, which employs about 80 percent of the work force and contributes around 30 percent to its annual GDP.
Yet the benefits on the multilateral level will be the real prize. The US has already announced its decision to lift Sudan from the US list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, which is widely understood to have been a key condition for Sudan’s agreement to normalize relations with Israel. Additional benefits include a generous package of incentives worth hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid and investment the US has prepared, together with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
On the face of it, the choice to normalize relations with Israel should be obvious. Yet 18 months after the ousting of the autocratic regime that had ruled Sudan for over thirty years, Sudan is going through a fragile process of democratization. Its current government, a cohabitation arrangement between military and civilian stakeholders, is fractured, and a decision as publicly contentious as recognizing Israel could strengthen the very elements who pose the greatest impediment to a smooth transition to democratic rule – primarily, the military and the Islamists.
The military has been taking the lead in establishing contacts with Israel. It was General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, chairman of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, a military-led body overseeing the civilian-led government, who met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Entebbe last February. In assuming responsibility for contacts with Israel, the military seeks to cast itself, both domestically and internationally, as the overriding authority for the country’s national security interests, at the expense of the civilian leadership. In so doing, it also wants to take the credit for the financial package that Sudan stands to receive for normalizing relations with Israel.
That one of the chief advocates for normalization has been al-Burhan’s deputy, Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo, underscores another facet that should be of concern to both the US and Israel. Dagalo is head of the paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces, which shot and and killed over 100 pro-democracy protesters last year. A decade and a half ago, he commanded the notorious Janjaweed (“Devil on Horseback”) militias, the main perpetrators of the genocide in Darfur. If normalization with Israel carries the cost of strengthening players like him, it behooves us to ask whether it is worth the benefits, not least for Sudan, but also for Israel.
On the other end of the Sudanese political divide are Islamist groups, who, too, stand to gain from a decision to recognize Israel. Once a rising political force in Sudan and – under the charismatic leadership Hassan al-Turabi – a key player in Al-Bashir’s government during the 1990s, the Islamists have seen their power decline over the past twenty years. Since the 2018 uprising, they have been waiting on the sidelines as the military and the secular liberals have been jockeying for power. Embracing Israel, a move bound to be widely unpopular given decades of official anti-Israeli hostility, could create an opportunity for the Islamists to mobilize public support, and they have already issued a fatwa against normalization of ties with Israel.
This is what is at stake for Sudan, and why the civilian leadership, led by Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok, appears to have been reluctant to accept the American offer, preferring to postpone a decision on Israel until after the first universal elections in the country, scheduled for 2022.
If the US cares for the long-term prospects of Israeli-Sudanese relations, it should refrain from bullying Khartoum into embracing Jerusalem at the present time and opt instead to encourage a gradual, step-by-step approach. For rather than heralding a thriving relationship between the two sides, the aggressive manner in which the Trump administration is forcing Sudan’s hand risks undermining the country’s delicate process to democratic rule, strengthening its military over the civilian stakeholders, enhancing the appeal of Islamist groups, and, ultimately, dooming any relationship between Israel and Sudan to a precipitous end.
The article was published by Haaretz on 20 October 2020