Jason Burke & Oliver Holmes
The Guardian / October 23, 2020
Donald Trump seeks to score points from deal; Palestinians call it ‘a new stab in the back’.
Israel and Sudan have agreed to work towards normalising relations in a deal brokered by the US that would make Sudan the third Arab country to set aside hostilities with Israel in the past two months.
Donald Trump sealed the agreement in a phone call on Friday with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, his Sudanese counterpart, Abdalla Hamdok, and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s transitional military council.
“The leaders agreed to the normalisation of relations between Sudan and Israel and to end the state of belligerence between their nations,” a joint statement by the three countries said.
However, it was not immediately clear whether Sudan’s transitional government has the authority to strike such a deal. The country remains without a parliament and elections are due in 2022.
Trump sought to score domestic political points over Joe Biden, his challenger in next month’s US presidential election, asking Netanyahu: “Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal?”
Netanyahu responded: “Uh … one thing I can tell you is, we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America.”
Trump, seeking to appeal to pro-Israel voters, has pushed countries in the Arab world to normalise relations with the Jewish state. Last month the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to establish ties with Israel under US-mediated deals, despite protests from the Palestinian leadership.
Wasel Abu Youssef, a senior Palestinian Liberation Organisation official, described Sudan’s decision as a “new stab in the back”.
Though Khartoum has been largely marginal to Middle Eastern politics in recent decades, the normalisation has significant symbolic value. After the 1967 war, Arab powers met in Khartoum to pledge three “noes”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel.
Netanyahu said Sudan was now saying the opposite. “Yes to peace with Israel, yes to the recognition of Israel, and yes to normalisation with Israel. This is a new era.”
Khartoum’s fragile transitional government had come under heavy pressure from Washington, which offered incentives, including help to access billions of dollars of desperately needed financial assistance from multilateral organisations.
As part of the agreement, Trump took steps to remove Sudan from a US government list of countries accused of promoting terrorism.
In a statement, the White House said Sudan and Israel had agreed to end the state of belligerence between their nations, and to begin economic and trade relations, with an initial focus on agriculture.
“This is obviously a great breakthrough,” Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, told Reuters. “Getting peace agreements done are not as easy as we are making them look right now. They are very hard to do.”
The announcement came after sunset in Israel and during Shabbat, the Jewish holy day of rest, when the country largely closes down, meaning there was little immediate response from politicians or the public.
While Sudan has far from fully committed to the deal, it will be seen in Israel as a major step forward. Unlike the UAE and Bahrain, which have never fought with the Jewish state, Sudan sent forces to fight in the war around Israel’s creation in 1948 and during the six-day war of 1967. In the 1970s, Israel backed Sudanese insurgents fighting the Khartoum government.
Raphael Ahren, a journalist for The Times of Israel newspaper, wrote earlier on Friday that peace with Sudan would be a “whole new ball game” in comparison with the UAE and Bahrain deals. “For one, a warm yes from the capital known for the ‘three noes’ would likely have a tremendous psychological impact on Israelis. ‘Those who used to reject us so bitterly have finally embraced us,’ many might reasonably say.”
However, resistance in Sudan is likely to be significant. Hamdok said last month that he had told the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, he would not link his country’s removal from the terrorism list with normalisation of relations with Israel.
Before his fall in 2019, the authoritarian ruler Omar al-Bashir had shifted from a de facto alliance with Iran to closer relations with Saudi Arabia, and there have been contacts between the intelligence services of Israel and Sudan in recent years.
Burhan, the most senior figure under the country’s power-sharing arrangement, held an unannounced meeting with Netanyahu in Uganda this year. Netanyahu later said the two governments were “establishing cooperative relations”, and Sudan has agreed to allow flights to Israel to fly over its territory.
The military leaders in the mixed transitional government appear to have been more enthusiastic about the normalisation of ties with Israel than the civilian leaders, who fear that the legitimacy of the new administration may be undermined by the move.
But the deal is a testament to the influence still wielded by the US in east Africa. Washington has moved to incrementally restore relations with Sudan over recent years, but has insisted that outstanding legal claims are settled before the country is struck from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Sudan has agreed to pay $335m in compensation to victims of the Al-Qaida bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. A US court decided that the Bashir regime had provided crucial assistance to Osama bin Laden’s group and was therefore partially responsible for the attacks.
Earlier on Friday, Trump told Congress he would formally strike Sudan from the terrorism list. Congress will have to approve the president’s decision.
The designation as a state sponsor of terrorism has denied Sudan access to debt relief and foreign financing. Meanwhile, the country’s economy has been crippled by decades of Bashir’s misrule, continuing internal conflict, recent political upheaval and the Covid-19 pandemic. Millions of people are facing hardship as food and fuel prices have soared.
In a tweet earlier on Friday, Hamdok thanked Trump for signing the executive order to remove Sudan from the list. “We’re working closely with the US administration and Congress to conclude the … removal process in a timely manner. We work towards international relations that best serve our people” the tweet read.
Jason Burke is the Africa correspondent of The Guardian, based in
Johannesburg, and reporting from across the continent
Oliver Holmes is the Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian