Adnan Abu Amer
Middle East Monitor / October 17, 2020
Following the normalisation agreements between Gulf states and Israel, the US administration and the Israeli occupation started talking about the next country in line – Sudan.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been exerting pressure on Khartoum to join the normalisation wave. This comes despite the presence of internal opposition in Sudan, coinciding with the US’ offer to remove Sudan from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism and hand over financial aid to Sudanese authorities.
A heated debate is currently taking place in Sudan regarding the normalisation of relations with Israel, amid rumours about the Sudanese authorities’ intention to hold overt relations with the Israeli occupation.
The presence of voices in the Sudanese government and the military leadership calling for normalising relations with Israel paved the way for establishing the Sudanese-Israeli Friendship Society, and intensified debates on TV channels and local press.
On the other hand, regarding Sudanese civilian forces, some are against and others for normalisation with Israel. However, as long as the matter is taking a progressive path, it will not lead to popular unrest. Both sides want Sudan’s name to be removed from the US blacklist, to promote investment in the country, to exempt Sudan from its external debts and to receive billions in US aid.
Officially, Israel and Sudan do not hold diplomatic relations, and they are still considered enemies. Despite this, there has been much contact at the highest level during the past few months, signifying that relations between the two countries have undergone a significant shift.
When Sudan cut its diplomatic ties with Iran in 2016, Israel started making indirect communications through the US to study the possibility of establishing relations with Israel. However, the overthrow of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir in April 2019 had already opened the doors to change.
In February 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Uganda with Head of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan Major General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, and they agreed to promote the normalisation of bilateral relations. In the same month, the latter announced allowing the first Israeli aircraft to cross Sudanese airspace.
After decades of hostility, Israel and Sudan may establish relations due to the efforts made by the Israeli government to improve its relations with Arab countries with the aim of creating a regional bloc to confront Iran. Sudan has witnessed an intense Iranian presence before 2014. We used to hear from time to time about raids against Iranian targets in the African country. On the other hand, Iranian warships, military convoys and warfare equipment manufactured by Tehran kept finding their way to the Gaza Strip and Hamas.
At that stage, relations between Khartoum and Tel Aviv reached their lowest levels, and animosity between the two states was deep-rooted. Thus, Sudan had become one of the few African countries that prohibits its citizens from visiting Israel.
Nevertheless, the situation has changed since 2014, after tense years and pressures exerted by the Saudis, Sudan ended its relations with Iran.
When relations between Iran and Sudan were suspended under Israel’s close supervision, the first step was to expel the Iranian cultural attaché from Khartoum, leading to the final rupture between Khartoum and Tehran. The Sudanese also stopped the arms smuggling operations that were destined for Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and later joined the Saudi coalition against the Houthis in Yemen.
In 2015, Israel made covert contact with the Sudanese authorities through representatives of international organisations. This resulted in the creation of a group of Israeli lobbyists working for Sudan’s interests in the US during President Barack Obama’s term, and in Europe, as Israel requested Western countries to assist Sudan to pay off its debts.
Some Sudanese parties see that establishing relations with Israel will serve the country’s internal interests. A Sudanese minister, who spoke publicly about the right to establish relations with Israel, accused the Arabs of making a historic mistake by opposing the 1947 United Nations (UN) Partition Plan.
Nowadays, Israel believes that developing its relations with Sudan will serve its interests, including shortening the duration of flights to four hours with Latin American countries, by flying its planes over Khartoum. Also, Israel wants to change the orientation of the African countries to vote in favour of Israel in UN bodies, in addition to attempting to invest in Sudan, especially in the fields of agriculture, water resources management, technology and medical innovation.
Sudanese-Israeli normalisation may lead to achieving a number of goals in several directions. Israel will gain from establishing relations with an African country of strategic importance on the shores of the Red Sea, and the US will create a reinforced transitional system as an alternative to the Islamists. Meanwhile, Sudan benefits from removing its name from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, and receives generous financial aid. As for the UAE, the authorities there hope to score a diplomatic achievement by mediating this deal and obtaining significant material gains.
The Israelis believe that the civilian command in Sudan finds it difficult to accept the establishment of relations with Israel because of the Palestinian issue, and prefers to separate the removal of Sudan from the blacklist from the normalisation file. However, the civilian forces in Khartoum, unlike the army, is not keen to benefit from the Israeli military abilities or the possibility of security cooperation with them.
The issue of Sudan’s removal from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism is at stake, as a necessary step to achieve an economic recovery. This means that the Sudanese civilian leadership is required to consider fulfilling the US’ wishes, and obtain the help of Gulf rulers who are capable of helping Sudan overcome the economic crisis.
Tel Aviv is well aware of the dispute within the Sudanese leadership regarding the normalisation file, and allows Washington to interfere in this thorny situation. Unlike the UAE, Israel does not expect an increase in commercial transactions with Sudan, nor does it expect a wave of enthusiasm in the streets of Khartoum, even if the normalisation agreement is signed.
Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science Department at the University of the Ummah in Gaza