With the third Israeli election in a year looming in a month, incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set off for Uganda last week, hoping to prove that he could strengthen Israel’s ties with African countries despite the increasingly violent impasse with the Palestinians. On February 3, he made a surprising announcement about establishing diplomatic ties with Sudan, a move which certainly won Netanyahu points at home while it sparked anger and protests in Sudan.
That same day, news broke that Netanyahu had been pressing the United States to recognize Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the Western Sahara region. Although the two situations are far from identical, Morocco — whose occupation is not officially recognized by any other countries — is often the first parallel drawn by critics of Israel’s occupation. It’s easy to see why Israel would want U.S. recognition of Morocco’s claim.
Both of these were highly cynical moves by a prime minister who is increasingly desperate to hold on to his office. Now that he has been indicted in three corruption cases, the next election means more than Netanyahu’s job. It may be the only way for him to avoid the fate of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who went to prison for corruption after his scandals forced him from office. Netanyahu obviously doesn’t relish the prospect and has made it clear he will do anything he can to avoid it. And he really doesn’t care about the effects on other countries.
Anger in Sudan
Reports indicate the meeting Netanyahu held in Uganda with Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan — the head of the transitional Sovereignty Council in Sudan that has run the country since a popular revolt ousted long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir — was hastily arranged. Burhan saw an opportunity to ingratiate himself to the Trump administration by warming ties with Israel, and he leapt at it. While he certainly knew that many in Sudan would object to an overture to Israel, and that his authority to initiate such action without the approval of the civilian parts of the government was dubious at best, Burhan is desperate to win favor in Washington.
Sudan remains on the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism, and as a result, it is cut off from international financial institutions and can’t secure loans from private banks either. This makes it impossible for Sudan to deal with a shattered economy, billions of dollars of debt, an unemployment rate near 20 percent, and an inflation rate of close to 60 percent.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo invited Burhan to Washington, a strong indication that the meeting with Netanyahu had the desired effect. But the reaction in Sudan was sharp. The Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) — the opposition coalition that agreed to a three-year transitional, power-sharing deal with the Sudanese military — condemned Burhan’s meeting with Netanyahu.
According to reports, the FFC said al-Burhan’s decision was “a clear violation of the country’s Constitutional Declaration. … Fundamental changes to a political issue of such importance, as the relationship with Israel [is], should be decided by the Sudanese people through channels that represent them.”
Amid protests outside government offices in Khartoum after his return, Burhan appeared to back away from his embrace of Israel, agreeing that the Sovereignty Council was the body that would decide about Sudan’s relationship with Israel and emphasizing that the country’s stance on the question of Palestine had not changed.
In the end, Netanyahu got what he wanted: a feather in his cap demonstrating to the Israeli public that even amid the anger at the Trump administration’s draconian “deal” for large-scale Israeli annexation, he could still reach out to an African, Muslim country and establish a relationship that had not existed before, and draw Israel further out of its global isolation.
It was particularly welcome for him in the wake of the U.S. pressing Netanyahu to hold off on annexation for a while, a move that angered Netanyahu’s right-wing base. That the prime minister was taking advantage of a desperate situation and might have put fatal pressure on a shaky alliance between civilian and military authorities in a country walking a thin line toward what it hopes will be a democratic future after decades of brutal military rule didn’t matter one bit.
This episode could yet have a happy ending for Sudan, if it leads to the United States removing it from the state sponsors of terrorism list. But with Sudan slowing its fledgling diplomacy with Israel, it remains to be seen whether the proposed meeting with the United Sates will materialize.
The involvement of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which reportedly brokered the Netanyahu-Burhan meeting, also casts a disturbing shadow on the event. The Emiratis were among the few Arab regimes that urged consideration of the Trump “Deal of the Century” plan, and clearly would like other Arab League member states like Sudan to join in that support. The UAE is seen by many as being aligned with the Sudanese military — and against the civilian authorities and their push for a democratic Sudan — and are currently in the midst of a scandal in Sudan, accused of duping young Sudanese men into security work in Libya.
Leveraging Western Sahara
Israel’s push for Washington to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara is more straightforward. Such a move would have deep implications for Israel’s plans to annex the West Bank. But it seems that the Trump administration is less inclined to work with Netanyahu on this.
Morocco and Israel have had a relatively warm, albeit clandestine, relationship for many years. When John Bolton — who had worked on Western Sahara as far back as the George H.W. Bush administration in 1991 and was uncharacteristically opposed to Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara — left the Trump administration, both the Moroccan and Israeli governments saw an opportunity to press the U.S. for a consulate in Western Sahara, a sign of implicit recognition of the legitimacy of the Moroccan occupation.
But seeing no clear gains for himself, and with no strong advocates within his own government for such a move, Trump has shown little interest in reversing decades of U.S. policy on an issue that is far from the radars of most American voters. That’s a lucky stroke, as legitimizing Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara could have profound implications that would reverberate around the world.
The precedent such a decision would set goes well beyond Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. It would strike at the heart of international principles, sending the message that the most fundamental principle in the United Nations charter — the prohibition against acquiring territory by force — is no longer relevant. In a world where borders have become more important than ever, reverting to an era where they held little meaning in the face of military might promises a great deal of conflict.
This matters little to Netanyahu. As with Sudan, his image as a statesman who can expand Israel’s relationships without concessions to the Palestinians would reap electoral benefits. It would appeal to both right-wing and center-right audiences. For Netanyahu, like his counterpart in the White House, the potential stress on Sudan’s aspirations of democracy and the rights of the people of Western Sahara simply pale in importance next to his own personal and political interest.