President Donald J. Trump meets with reporters to announce that Israel and Sudan have agreed to establish limited ties Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo Tia Dufour)
Trump administration twists Sudan’s arm to establish new Israel ties

Political transitions following Arab revolutions have generally been messy and complicated since 2011. Sudan’s ongoing three-year transition to democracy is no exception. At this juncture, devastating floods, COVID-19, inflation, food insecurity, and unemployment leave the country facing countless challenges amid a sensitive period. Khartoum’s agreement to establish limited ties with Israel is now another issue that may have a divisive impact on Sudan. The deal could possibly lead to greater domestic instability, in large part because the agreement appears to reflect the interests of Sudan’s regional and international partners rather than popular opinion in Sudan itself.

Announced on October 23, the U.S.-brokered deal between the hybrid civilian-military interim government in Khartoum and Israel makes Sudan the third Arab state since August to announce plans to move towards normalized ties with Tel Aviv — albeit more tentatively than the “Abraham Accords” which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed with Israel. Tension between those in power in Sudan who support normalizing relations with Israel and the majority of citizens who oppose formalizing relations plays out within the context of a delicate balance between Sudan’s two power centers, and Sudan, unlike the UAE or Bahrain, is not governed by a ruling family that wields absolute power. Omar Qamar al-Din, Sudan’s acting foreign minister, implied that the military component of Sudan’s transitional government made the decision to join the UAE and Bahrain in opening ties with Israel, forcing the civilian prime minister to reluctantly go along with the move.

Often described as Sudan’s “deep state”, the interim government’s military component is authoritarian to its core and strongly supported by the UAE. In early October, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as “Hemedti,” the controversial vice president of Sudan’s sovereign council, said that official relations with Israel would advance Sudanese interests. This comment was unsurprising. High-ranking members of Sudan’s officer corps have long believed that their country should pursue the economic benefits that Egypt secured after its normalization of relations with Israel back in 1979, maintaining that Sudan suffered from longtime President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s rigid anti-Israeli positions.

Indeed, such economic benefits to Khartoum appear to be around the corner. Shortly after the announcement of this agreement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that his country would send Sudan $5 million in food aid. Additionally, according to Sudan’s Foreign Ministry, within a few weeks both countries are set to have bilateral talks to discuss deals in various sectors such as agriculture, aviation, migration, and trade.

The civilian-led component of the government mostly stands against formalizing ties with Israel, at least under current circumstances, and this may explain why the Sudan-Israel deal fell so far short of the agreements Israel signed with Bahrain and the UAE last month. The Emiratis have sought to wield strong influence in Sudan since Bashir’s ouster in April 2019 and have pressured the military leadership to make overtures to Israel. It was the UAE which orchestrated a secret meeting in February 2020 in Uganda between General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, the Chairman of the Sovereign Council and one of the military leaders who overthrew Bashir, and Netanyahu. That meeting in Entebbe was a first step toward normalization, according to Israel’s head of state.

When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Khartoum in late August, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok told him that Sudan’s transitional government had “no mandate” to establish full-fledged relations with Israel. Hamdok’s position had been that Khartoum cannot formalize ties with Israel unless and until a legitimate and democratically elected government comes to power in Sudan. Once again, the UAE intervened by inviting a senior delegation of Sudanese leaders to Abu Dhabi to meet with U.S. officials September 21 to kickstart talks on a delisting of Sudan from the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism, or SST list, and normalization after Hamdok’s rebuff to Pompeo. The need to align the positions of Sudan’s civilian and military leaders likely explains the limited nature of the deal with Israel as a fragile compromise between the factions in government that may quickly unravel.

State-run media in Sudan acknowledged the agreement to formalize Sudan-Israel relations but stressed that this would ultimately require the elected parliament’s ratification. That body, however, will come into existence only after parliamentary elections, scheduled for late 2022. How Sudan’s hybrid government will work through this politically messy situation is unclear. Yet, considering all the public displays of opposition to normalization across Sudan since October 23, it is fair to assume that this issue will remain delicate. Many Sudanese believe that the Palestinian cause is one for all Arabs and Muslims to support and not one just for Palestinians themselves to carry on their backs.

It is critical to understand how Sudan’s military leaders made this decision under significant pressure from Washington and Abu Dhabi. By linking a delisting of Sudan from the SST list to Khartoum opening relations with Israel, the Trump administration was able to twist Sudan’s arm given the country’s desperate need of economic relief following decades of sweeping U.S.-imposed sanctions, including an effective veto over grants or loans from Western-dominated international financial institutions, such as the World Bank. Instead of removing Sudan from the SST list as soon as the post-Bashir government came to power in 2019, the Trump administration used its leverage to gain more concessions from Khartoum amid a period of great vulnerability in Khartoum.

By pushing Sudan to establish relations with Israel just before the November 3 presidential election in the U.S., Trump was characteristically transactional in his approach. Adding insult to injury was the administration’s insistence that Sudan pay $335 million in reparations for the Bashir regime’s alleged role in the August 7, 1998 bombings of Washington’s embassies in Kenya and Tanzania despite the current government being in power as a result of the revolution which ended Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship.

At a time when the balance of power in Sudan is poised delicately between the militaristic “deep state” and the state’s civilian-led component, the issue of Sudan-Israel relations could spark unrest and threaten the fragile transition to democratic rule. Former Bashir regime officials, who know that under Sudan’s former ruler this deal would have never happened, may seek to exploit this situation in order to undermine the transition. Islamists in the country, as well as political groups such as communists, Arab nationalists, and other left-wing factions will likely express anger over the Sudanese military’s decision to bury the Palestinian issue under pressure from the U.S., Israel, and the UAE.

There was already talk in Khartoum of Sudan undergoing a “second uprising” this month as conditions remain dismal across the country nearly 19 months after Bashir’s ouster. Khartoum’s new ties with Israel could easily add another layer of instability within Sudan and, if Trump fails in his bid for re-election, constitute a combustible legacy of his administration’s highly unorthodox approach to diplomacy.

It is a safe bet that Abu Dhabi will work its leverage in the Sahel, where Emirati aid has secured the UAE significant amounts of geopolitical influence, to push more countries such as Mali and Mauritania toward normalizing relations with Israel, too. Notably, Abu Dhabi played a critical role in facilitating Chad’s renormalization of ties with the Jewish state in 2019.

The odds are good that regardless of who wins the U.S. presidential election month, Abu Dhabi’s efforts to help integrate Israel into the wider Islamic world’s diplomatic fold will receive full support from Washington. American and Emirati officials would be pleased to see more Sahelian countries move in Chad and Sudan’s direction, ultimately widening the circle of regional states willing to follow the Emirati lead in moving toward various forms of normalization with Israel.

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