Netanyahu bolsters Sudan’s military leaders in attempt to save normalization

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  April 30, 2023

Israel is attempting to exploit the conflict in Sudan to push through Sudan-Israel normalization, a symbolic milestone for Israel. It is also against the will of the people of Sudan.

Last Monday, Israel offered to mediate the conflict between the leaders of Sudan’s two warring factions: army chief and de facto ruler of the country, Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Burhan and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) head Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti. Israel is in a good position to act as mediator between the two power-grabbing generals, as they have built strong relationships with both strongmen. What is most interesting about this, and about the fighting in Sudan in general, is who was not invited: any representative of the Sudanese people. 

The willful sidelining of Sudanese civil society has been emblematic of the attitude toward Sudan in recent years. After the 2019 coup—led by the young women and men of Sudan—finally ousted long-time autocrat Omar al-Bashir, the leaders of that civilian uprising entered an ill-fated partnership with the military which had arrested al-Bashir and ended the process of removing him from office. The plan was to transition to a fully civilian government. 

That always shaky plan was fully derailed in 2021 when al-Burhan led a military coup. One coup failed, but the second succeeded in establishing al-Burhan as the head of the Sudanese government. Protests swelled again and, as turmoil threatened to engulf the country, a highly unpopular deal was struck where al-Burhan would allow the ousted prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok to return to office. That lasted six weeks, as the Sudanese people protested that deal, forcing Hamdok to resign again.

As all this was unfolding, the U.S., under both the Donald Trump and Joe Biden administrations, did little to help the struggling Sudanese people attain their goal of democracy. As has so often been the case, the Biden administration chose to distinguish itself from Trump in rhetoric, but not in policy or action. 

Trump pressured Sudan to pay over $335 million to the U.S. as compensation for al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. sites in the 1990s, when al-Bashir was providing shelter for Osama Bin Laden, although there is no evidence linking Sudan to the attacks. When we consider that Sudan’s entire budget for 2021 was just $3.7 billion, meaning the payment to the U.S. was nearly 10% of the national budget, it becomes clear how onerous that was.

Trump also pressed Sudan to move forward as one of the three initial signatories of the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations with Israel and abandoning the Palestinians. This was problematic for Sudan, as the agreement was highly unpopular. While the repressive Sudanese military was eager to join forces with the like-minded Israelis, Sudanese civil society felt great solidarity with the Palestinians, even though, economically, they desperately needed to reap the benefits of trade with the U.S. that would come with normalization with Israel.

Sudan agreed to sign the Accords but the process of full normalization would have to be approved by whatever civilian government was eventually formed. This has left relations in limbo ever since. Israel states that it is waiting for a civilian government to complete the Accords, but in reality, they are simply waiting for any Sudanese government to be stable enough to move forward, civilian or military. As is demonstrated by Israel’s long-term peace treaty with Egypt—a relationship that was only threatened briefly when a revolution ousted the military dictator Hosni Mubarak and replaced him with a civilian government led by Mohammed Morsi, whom Israel despised—a civilian government is not a prerequisite for Israel to establish relations. 

In fact, the Abraham Accords, absurdly called “peace agreements” by craven politicians and a credulous media, are uniformly normalization agreements between brutal dictatorships in the Arab world and an apartheid state, brokered with all the hypocrisy the United States can muster. A newly restored military dictatorship in Sudan concluding an agreement with Israel would be par for the course. 

Why is Sudan important to Israel ?

Sudan is a poor country, although a civilian government that leads it out of the international isolation established during al-Bashir’s reign could grow the economy quickly. But for Israel, the value of normalization with Sudan is largely symbolic.

It was in the Sudanese capital Khartoum in 1968 that the Arab League issued the famous “Three No’s” declaration, in the wake of Israel’s decisive victory in the 1967 war. “No peace with Israel, no negotiation with Israel, no recognition of Israel,” went the declaration. Also, unlike the other three Arab states that have entered the Abraham Accords—the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco—Sudan did actually participate in hostilities against Israel in both 1948 and 1967, albeit peripherally. Also, where the UAE and Bahrain stifled opposition to the Abraham Accords and are not making any effort toward ending their authoritarian rule, Sudan would present an argument, however disingenuous, that the “voices of peace” in the country overcame populist anti-Zionism. That would mean a deadly blow to the already crippled Palestinian hopes for help from the Arab world. And it would be the first actual “peace” deal among the Abraham Accord agreements. 

This is one reason that Israel’s effort with Sudan was underway long before the Abraham Accords were birthed, dating back to at least 2016, when Sudan cut ties with Iran and Israel began advocating for the U.S. to drop it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. 

Different parts of the Israeli security establishment have been working with different wannabe dictators in Sudan as well. The current fighting between al-Burhan and Hemedti splits the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which is more sympathetic to al-Burhan and the Mossad, which has developed close ties with Hemedti. The UAE is also close to Hemedti, while Egypt is warmer toward al-Burhan. All of this plays out regionally as well, in places such as Libya and Yemen. The complicated alliances of the two Sudanese rivals makes Israel reluctant to act in support of either, and this is why they prefer the role of mediator. 

Cutting out the civilians

The fighting in Sudan, however, is very much a local affair, and is a simple one. Al-Burhan, as leader of both the military and the government, wants to move toward a unified Sudanese military. He entered talks with Hemedti’s RSF to merge the two military forces over the next two years. Hemedti could not come out and say that he did not want to submit to al-Burhan’s command, so he argued that the merger should happen over the course of ten years, which is tantamount to a refusal. 

Because each side has significant interests not just in wealth as well as power, the fighting began. The Sudanese civilian population has been caught in the middle. Meanwhile, in terms of Israel’s and the U.S.’ ongoing push for Sudan to fully sign on to the Abraham Accords, the Sudanese people are simply out of the loop.

When Sudan first signed the Accords  it was the beginning of the normalization process, not the end. The process moved forward in April 2021 with the repeal of a 1958 law requiring a boycott of Israel. 

Yet even before the Accords were signed, the normalization process was controversial. In January 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly met with al-Burhan in Uganda. Netanyahu announced the next day that Sudan would soon agree to normalize relations with Israel, and howls of protest were the response. Prime Minister Hamdok pushed back, saying that only after a permanent government was in place could such an agreement be decided upon

As much as Israel, and especially Netanyahu, wanted to reap the political benefits of normalization with Sudan, an agreement that was seen as illegitimately struck with a transitory government would be too fragile. So they waited. 

Yet it has been clear from numerous examples, including Netanyahu’s secret meeting and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s visit in February of this year, that Israel was treating al-Burhan as the head of the Sudanese state and pushing him to come to an agreement. Yet Cohen’s visit was also greeted with protests.

In fact, the Arab Opinion Index released in January 2023 showed that, although Sudan showed the second highest percentage of citizens in the Arab world who would support normalization with Israel, that was still only 18% of the population, with 72% opposed. And this is all the more remarkable since Sudan’s particular situation—its dire economic distress that makes it desperate for help from the West and the international financial system—might otherwise lead more Sudanese to support a relationship with Israel that might bring American and European favor, support, and, crucially, investment. Yet the Sudanese popular movement that has continued to struggle for democracy also presses the population to remember the Palestinians

But this is par for the course for Israel and the Abraham Accords. Israel has no means to convince most of the Arab world that they should simply forget the Palestinians and work with Israel regardless of its apartheid nature. But since the countries they are normalizing with are dictatorships of various types, they need only convince the leadership. Where those leaders are firmly ensconced, they can use authoritarian methods to address the people’s objections. But in Sudan, the struggle with democratic forces make the situation much less comfortable for al-Burhan. It would be no better if Hemedti took power. 

Despite its rhetoric about waiting for a civilian government, Israel knows very well that any sort of democracy in Sudan would put an impenetrable barrier in front of the Abraham Accords. A democratic Sudan would certainly insist on granting the Palestinians their rights before any sort of normalization. And, even before the latest fighting in Sudan, the military government was not stable enough to simply forge ahead with normalization. 

The United States has already demonstrated, through its callous extortion of money from an impoverished country, that it is prepared to put enormous pressure on Sudan to normalize with Israel. It will be important to support the Sudanese struggle for democracy and to prevent our government from derailing that struggle in Sudan for the sake of Israel’s petty political gains. Sudanese democracy demands it, as does justice for Palestinians, who will suffer yet another major setback if Sudanese-Israeli normalization is completed. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy