Secret meeting with Sudan a significant move for Israel

  • IsraelSudan
As Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew into Uganda for a 24-hour whirlwind trip on Monday, the outcome was expected to be that the two states would establish embassies, with Uganda possibly indicating that its embassy could be in Jerusalem. But there was an unexpected diplomatic achievement with a different country, namely formalised ties with the Arab African state of Sudan.
by TALI FEINBERG | Feb 06, 2020

“The news of the meeting between Netanyahu and Sudan’s leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the chairperson of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, drew a muted response in Sudan, where the government was not informed in advance that it would be taking place. The meeting was held in secret, with the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] censoring early reports of it in Israel and only a small number of Sudanese officials knowing of it in advance. After the meeting, the prime minister’s office announced that Israel and Sudan would work towards normalisation,” reported the Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov.

The United Arab Emirates apparently organised the meeting between Netanyahu and al-Burhan. It took place in Entebbe, Uganda.

Israeli officials said both countries were “setting up teams to work on how to advance co-operation between the countries and establish diplomatic relations”.

“If indeed ties are established it will be a big boon for Israel and maybe an electoral boost for Netanyahu,” said Steven Gruzd, foreign policy analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs. “It’s his fourth visit to Africa in the past two years, and is part of Israel’s re-engagement with the continent.

“Israel has strong ties with South Sudan that seceded in 2011, so it will be a diplomatic achievement to also establish full relations with Khartoum. Israel found an opening after [former leader Omar al] Bashir was toppled, and Sudan could see this as a way to improve ties with the United States,” he said.

“This seems to follow a larger pattern of engagement by a number of countries who historically have not had a relationship with Israel,” said J. Brooks Spector, the associate editor at Daily Maverick. “In part, this could be because the salience [relevance] of Palestinian issues is decreasing rather than increasing. Times and circumstances may be different, and even if Sudan was coming from a place of conflict before, both nations are accommodating this new reality.”

“That meeting that took place between Netanyahu and al-Burhan was highly controversial within Sudan,” said political analyst Daniel Silke. “I don’t think there was buy-in across the board amongst all the various political groupings there, which are very complicated. I don’t see this as being specifically a move to be closer to Israel. It certainly seems to be an attempt by Sudan to present a more pragmatic view to the outside world, particularly to the US, because Sudan still does labour under substantial economic sanctions. The US regards Sudan as a purveyor of state terror. I think by being a little more pragmatic and friendly towards a key US ally like Israel, Sudan is hoping to ingratiate herself to some degree with the US and the Trump administration. So I think it’s more of a conduit to the US than anything substantial on Mid-East policy and a realignment.”

Others believe it to be highly significant. Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mark Regev, tweeted, “Fifty three years ago, the Arab League declared from Sudan, ‘No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiation with Israel’. Fifty three years on, Israeli and Sudanese leaders meet. Our growing ties with the Arab world prove the obsolescence of anti-Israel rejectionism.”

Barak Ravid, a senior correspondent on Israel’s Channel 13, tweeted, “Why it matters: today’s meeting follows years of hostility from Sudan toward Israel, and signals a diplomatic opening under the joint civilian-military government that replaced long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir last year. Sudanese soldiers fought against Israel in the 1948 and 1967 wars. The country also used to host Hamas headquarters, and was used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps as a logistical hub for arms smuggling to Gaza.”

Said Gregg Carlstrom, Middle Eastern correspondent for the Economist, “Between this and the pre-2019 Sudan diplomacy, Arab states are getting some very strong signals that America is willing to upend decades of policy in exchange for normalisation with Israel.”

Yaakov Katz, the Jerusalem Post’s editor in chief, said, “A meeting between Netanyahu and the leader of Sudan is far from being an election gimmick. Moving Sudan, an Arab country, out of Iran’s orbit into the West is dramatic for Israel and the region. Just a few years ago, Israel was regularly tracking Iranian arms crossing Sudan to Gaza.”

Jonathan Schanzer, the senior vice-president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argued, “Bibi did not draw Sudan out of Iran’s orbit. Saudi did that a few years back. Sudan is now a junior player/pawn in the Saudi-led alliance. Sudan’s outreach to Israel is basically a Saudi trial balloon. That doesn’t make this less meaningful. Perhaps gives it more significance. I’d also add that Sudan wants sanctions lifted. After years of supporting Hamas and Iran, this is a clear sign that Khartoum has turned a corner.”

There could be practical results to the meeting too. “An Israeli source said the Sudan-Israel thaw will allow Israeli planes to overfly the African country, shortening routes to Africa’s south and South America,” tweeted Ha’aretz English edition editor Avi Scharf. Netanyahu’s son, Yair, added, “Interesting fact: if there was peace with Sudan, we could technically drive on a road trip from here [Israel] to Cape Town.”

Meanwhile, the meeting being held in Uganda was significant. “Netanyahu landed on Monday at Entebbe International Airport. His El Al plane landed only several metres from the very terminal where the prime minister’s brother, Yonatan, was killed during a daring raid to liberate Jewish hostages, 43 years ago,” reported the Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren. “Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni told Netanyahu that he would look into the possibility of opening an embassy in Jerusalem. Uganda doesn’t have an embassy in Israel, and the Israeli ambassador in neighbouring Kenya also serves as ambassador to Kampala.”

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