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The US push for Sudan to normalize relations with Israel won’t be so easy

Sudan isn’t the UAE; it has a more liberal and secular civil society that will oppose an agreement with Israel.

Analysis | Middle East

Since the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel, speculation that Sudan will soon follow suit has been rife. As incentive, the Trump administration is reportedly proposing to remove Sudan from the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list for the first time in 27 years in exchange for a diplomatic accord between Khartoum and Tel Aviv.

Although both the Obama and Trump administrations took steps to significantly improve bilateral ties with Sudan including lifting some economic sanctions, Sudan’s continued SST listing remains a major obstacle to alleviating Khartoum’s increasingly desperate economic situation. The SST designation prevents the U.S. government from giving Sudan economic assistance and requires Washington to oppose loans and grants to Khartoum from the western-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund, thus leaving the country substantially dependent on members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, for stabilizing its economy.

It is clear that the Trump administration and its voting power on the boards of international financial institutions are pressing Sudan to become the next Arab state to sign an accord with Israel, preferably before the November 3 presidential election. At the same time, the UAE is trying hard to persuade Sudan’s hybrid civilian/military government, as well as other regimes throughout the greater Middle East, to follow it and Bahrain in establishing formal ties with Israel, which would reduce Abu Dhabi’s isolation on the issue.

Emirati support for the Trump administration’s efforts to bring Sudan on board was on display when Sudanese Justice Minister Naser-Eddin Abdelbari met U.S. officials in Abu Dhabi on September 21 to discuss the SST listing and other bilateral issues, including compensating U.S. victims of terrorist acts for which U.S. courts have found Sudan responsible. The talks ended without agreement. A Sudanese official later told the New York Times that Washington and Abu Dhabi had offered Khartoum a combined aid and investment package worth $800 million, of which Israel would provide $10 million. But Sudan declined the offer, arguing that the new government required far more — between three and four billion dollars — to overcome the ongoing economic crisis.

External pressure on Sudan to formalize relations with Israel under current circumstances could negatively impact the country’s fragile transition to democracy, according to a number of Sudan experts. “The normalization of relations with Israel is a sensitive topic politically in Sudan and one which divides opinion,” Ahmed Soliman, an analyst at London’s Chatham House, told Responsible Statecraft. “Given the instabilities of the transition, it has the potential to further internal divisions, including between elements of the forces for change.”

It is safe to assume that the normalization process could play out very differently in Sudan than in the UAE or Bahrain. Numerous factors unique to Sudan would distinguish any diplomatic agreement between Khartoum and Tel Aviv from the UAE-Bahrain-Israel Abraham Accords signed at the White House last month.

History of hostility

First, a Sudan-Israel agreement would constitute a real “peace deal” — unlike the Abraham Accords. Sudan officially went to war against Israel in 1948 and 1967; while the Emirates and Bahrain stayed out of all armed Arab conflicts with the Jewish state. In addition, Tel Aviv, as part of its “Alliances on the Periphery” doctrine, trained and armed the Anyanya — a Christian secessionist group in southern Sudan (now South Sudan), which fought against Sudan’s government in the First Sudanese Civil War (1955-1972) — and was repeatedly accused by Khartoum of supporting  rebel groups in Darfur again during the 2000s.

If Sudan viewed Israel as a serious threat, the feeling was somewhat mutual, especially after Sudan’s 1989 Islamist-backed military coup. Under Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who ruled Sudan for the two decades after the coup until his ouster in April 2019, Khartoum provided support at various times to a number of Palestinian/Arab factions, including the Abu Nidal Organization (or Fatah-Revolutionary Council), Hamas, al-Qaida, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

The Sudanese government’s once-strong partnership with Iran added to Israel’s view of the threat posed by Khartoum. In 2009, 2011, and 2012, the Israelis carried out military strikes in Sudan to prevent the alleged flow of arms transiting Sudan to Gaza via Egypt and perhaps also to send a message to Tehran about keeping its weapons out of Africa and the Red Sea.

With Bashir at the helm, Sudan’s regime used those episodes to bolster its pan-Arab/anti-Zionist credentials, both domestically and regionally. “If Israel is targeting Sudan because of its stand on the side of the Palestinian resistance,” the speaker of the Sudanese parliament, Ahmad Ibrahim Al-Tahir, declared after the 2012 attack, “then Sudan will continue down that road as dictated by the religion, history and fate it shares with the Palestinian people.”

Civil society and political pluralism

Also relevant to the question of normalization is the fact that Sudan — unlike the UAE — has a vibrant civil society made up of trade unions, professional associations, and other non-governmental organizations. Various independent factions demonstrated their resilience and power during the 2018/2019 revolution and again when the military attempted a power grab shortly after Bashir’s ouster. Many of these, “including the National Umma Party, the Communist Party and Arab nationalist groups, oppose [normalization of relations] with Israel, pointing to the need to reach a solution to the Palestinian cause,” according to Soliman.

“If normalization is seen as resulting from exploitation of Sudan’s economic and humanitarian desperation,” warned Payton Knopf and Jeffrey Feltman in a recent U.S. Institute of Peace report, “it will be even more polarizing among the public, accelerate the erosion of support for the transition.”

It is not just the more liberal and secular civil society forces that are likely to oppose normalization. Still-powerful Islamist factions, already unhappy with democratic reforms, notably ending three decades of Islamic law and separating mosque from state, would consider such a move a provocation that could radicalize their followers. “The [normalization] issue will be seized on by former regime figures and Islamist groups seeking to derail the government,” Soliman said.

These factors were no doubt elevated when Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok rebuffed Mike Pompeo, the first secretary of state to visit Khartoum since 2005, when Pompeo broached Sudan’s recognition of Israel in late August. Hamdok told Pompeo that Sudan’s government had “no mandate” to sign a deal with Israel before the completion of the country’s transition to democracy.

A Fragile Moment

It is difficult to overstate the fragility of Sudan’s political situation. Following three decades of dictatorship, stability rests on a delicate balance between two centers of gravity — a military-dominated “deep state” on the one hand and a civilian-led component that is more popular and legitimate in the eyes of most citizens on the other — that came together in a power-sharing agreement signed in August 2019.

While the “deep state,” which has been supported by the UAE, favors an accord with Israel, the civilian and more democratic component appears determined for now to assert Sudan’s independence from the UAE and resist pressure from Washington, according to Jalel Harchaoui an expert at the Hague-based Clingendael Institute. However, with Sudan’s economy in such horrible shape, U.S. and Emirati pressure vis-à-vis Israel may yet prove irresistible, despite domestic risks.

Ultimately, Washington and Abu Dhabi’s pressure on Khartoum to formally engage Israel threatens to undermine the transitional government’s legitimacy. If the United States wants to truly support Sudan’s democratic transition, delinking the SST designation from Khartoum’s position on Israel would help a lot.

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo meets with Sudanese Sovereign Council Chair General Abdel Fattah el-Burhan, in Khartoum, Sudan, on August 25, 2020. [U.S. Embassy Khartoum photo by Alsanosi Ali/ Public Domain]
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