Analysis: From “No, No, No” to “Yes”; Sudan is latest state to normalise relations with Israel

Sudan has become the latest Arab nation to seek to normalise its relationship with Israel. The agreement was announced during a call between Benjamin Netanyahu, President Trump and Sudan’s Sovereign Council president, General Abdel Fattah al- Burhan, and prime minister Abdalla Hamdok.

The announcement – which follows the signing last month of the Abraham Accords that established diplomatic relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – has huge symbolic significance. However, unlike those agreements, there remain major potential stumbling blocks on the road ahead. Israel hailed the news, which was also welcomed by Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain; it was, though, denounced by the Palestinians and Iran.

The move has also sparked speculation about which of its former enemies will be next to normalise their relationship with Israel: Saudi Arabia remains the biggest prize, although that appears unlikely to move forward until at least after the outcome of next Tuesday’s US presidential election is clear.

The official statement issued by the White House said: “The leaders agreed to the normalisation of relations between Sudan and Israel and to end the state of belligerence between their nations. In addition, the leaders agreed to begin economic and trade relations, with an initial focus on agriculture. The leaders also agreed that delegations will meet in the coming weeks to negotiate agreements of cooperation in those areas as well as in agriculture technology, aviation, migration issues and other areas for the benefit of the two peoples. The leaders also resolved to work together to build a better future and advance the cause of peace in the region. This move will improve regional security and unlock new opportunities for the people of Sudan, Israel, the Middle East, and Africa.”

During the call, a delighted Netanyahu claimed: “It’s just a new world. This truly changes the region. It changes the lives of all our peoples for the better.”

However, the Israeli prime minister diplomatically side-stepped an attempt by Trump to draw him into US domestic politics. “Do you think Sleepy Joe [Biden] could have made this deal, Bibi? Sleepy Joe? …I don’t think so,” the president asked. Netanyahu hesitated and replied: “Well, Mr President, one thing I can tell you is we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America.”

The agreement

The deal was oiled by Sudan’s announcement last week that it had agreed to pay $355m compensation to the victims of the 1998 al-Qaida bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in which 224 people died. The former regime of President Omar al-Bashir, which was toppled last year following massive demonstrations, granted asylum to the terrorists responsible and a US court found that Sudan had played a role in the attack.

In return, Trump agreed to remove Sudan from its list of states which sponsor terrorism. Sudan was added to the list by the Clinton administration in 1993, in part due to its backing for Hamas and Hezbollah. It is believed that Sudan – which was at the time closely allied to Iran – was used to help funnel weapons to terrorists in Gaza. Israel is also thought responsible for airstrikes on Iran which destroyed a weapons convoy in 2009 and a weapons factory in Khartoum in 2012. The US Congress will need to approve Trump’s delisting of Sudan within 45 days.

Crucially, the delisting will open the door for Sudan’s economy – which is saddled by heavy debts and ravaged by inflation – to escape crushing US sanctions and access international credit. The US is also reported to have offered Sudan an $800m package of aid and investments.

Israel will play a part in supplying aid and investment to Sudan. Netanyahu has announced that an Israeli team will meet with Sudan to discuss “wide-ranging cooperation, including agriculture, trade and other sectors important to our citizens”. Sudan’s Foreign Ministry said on Sunday it hopes the meetings will “achieve the mutual interests of the two peoples”. Both the US and Israel would also help Sudan “consolidate its democracy, enhance food security… and fight terrorism,” it said. Israel has already pledged that it will send $5m worth of wheat to Sudan.

Sudan, in turn, has opened its airspace to Israeli flights and, US officials say, will designate Hezbollah a terrorist organisation.

Saudi Arabia is also thought to have played a role in smoothing the path to the three-way agreement. It is thought likely it will finance the $335m compensation that Sudan must pay the terror victims. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Sudan had grown much closer even before Bashir’s overthrow, while the once-tight bond between Khartoum and Tehran was severed in 2016. “That was the great turnover, or the tipping point,” Brigadier General Assaf Orion, an Israeli military strategist at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv told the New York Times. “When they moved over from being a hub of Iranian weapons proliferation to Gaza to at least siding on the right side of the Gulf, that’s a substantial thing.” At the same time, shared mistrust of Iran’s expansionist ambitions in the Middle East has seen a thaw in relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia – although the two countries have no official diplomatic relations and dealings, including security cooperation, are largely conducted below the radar.

Regional reaction

The reaction from Ramallah and Tehran was predictably hostile to the announcement. “The State of Palestine expressed today its condemnation and rejection of the deal to normalise ties with the Israeli occupation country which usurps Palestinian land,” the office of President Mahmoud Abbas said. “No one has the right to speak on behalf of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause.” A Palestine Liberation Organisation official, Wasel Abu Youssef, said: “Sudan’s joining others who normalised ties with the state of the Israeli occupation represents a new stab in the back of the Palestinian people and a betrayal of the just Palestinian cause.” Hamas labelled the agreement a “political sin” and said the only beneficiary would be Netanyahu. Iran’s Foreign Ministry attacked Sudan, saying: “Pay enough ransom, close your eyes on the crimes against Palestinians, then you’ll be taken off the so-called ‘terrorism’ blacklist. Obviously the list is as phony as the US fight against terrorism. Shameful!”

However, there was a warmer welcome from the UAE and Bahrain. “Sudan’s decision to initiate relations with the state of Israel is an important step to enhance security, and prosperity in the region,” the official UAE news agency said, citing the Foreign Ministry. Bahrain saluted Sudan’s efforts “to exercise an active and constructive role in the international community,” a Foreign Ministry statement said. Egypt – which until this summer was one of only two Arab states to have diplomatic relations with Israel – also reacted positively. “I welcome the joint efforts by the United States of America, Sudan and Israel regarding the normalisation of relations between Sudan and Israel,” its president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, said on Twitter. “I value all efforts aimed at achieving regional stability and peace.”

From “No, No, No” to “Yes”

The news that Sudan is to establish ties is symbolically and psychologically important to Israel. Sudan – unlike the UAE and Bahrain – has been to war with the country. During Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, it dispatched six army companies to join Egypt in attempting to militarily throttle the new Jewish state. In 1967, Sudan again sent a small contingent of troops to assist Egypt.

But it was events immediately after the 1967 war – when Arab League gathered in Khartoum and issued its infamous three no’s: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel – that gives last week’s news an important symbolic significance. As Raphael Ahren, The Times of Israel’s diplomatic correspondent, suggested: “A warm yes from the capital known for the ‘Three No’s’ 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.”

But the news isn’t just about warm feelings. “We now have diplomatic relations with most African countries, and an important country like Sudan, which is one of the biggest countries in Africa and also is kind of a bridge between Africa south and north of the Sahara, between Arabs and Africans in Africa, could be a huge benefit… in an effort to bring more diplomatic support to Israel in international forums,” Irit Bak, head of African Studies at Tel Aviv University, told a briefing for media at Jerusalem’s Press Club ahead of the announcement.

Indeed, as Haaretz’s Zvi Bar’el commented: “With this agreement, Israel will complete the creation of a safety cordon in the Red Sea, which includes Egypt, Jordan, South Sudan and Saudi Arabia. The transfer of weapons from the Sinai Peninsula to Gaza, which relies on smuggling routes passing through Sudan, may be further curtailed. But the main asset from Israel’s perspective is the stabilisation of the normalisation process with other Arab countries, and its acceptance as part of a strategy that serves the interests of those countries.”

That analysis was echoed by Dore Gold, a former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry: “I think there’s a cumulative impact every time you get another country, especially one of the largest in Africa, both in population and geographic expanse.”

Certainly, Israel will hope that, coming on top of Sudan’s break from Iran’s sphere of influence, normalisation will bring with it a security benefit. “Sudan is an important country in the region, having previously served as a way station for weapons between Iran and Gaza,” Eli Cohen, Israel’s intelligence minister suggested on the eve of the announcement. “Taking it off the US list of state sponsors of terrorism will enable us to sign another agreement and develop several important tracks of cooperation that will greatly contribute to Israel.”

Not so fast

Nonetheless, experts do not expect that progress towards normalisation with Sudan will develop at quite the same pace as that which characterised this summer’s agreements with Bahrain and the UAE.

Already, the Sudanese prime minister has indicated that, in the first phase, there will be no mutual establishment of embassies or exchange of ambassadors. As Ahren noted, unlike the UAE and Bahrain announcements, the statement issued after Friday’s phone call – itself not a treaty with legal status – omitted the words “full normalisation”.

There are also questions about domestic blow-back in Sudan. The Sudanese foreign minister said on Friday that the agreement must be ratified by the country’s legislative body – an institution which does not currently exist. There were also sporadic protests in Khartoum after the announcement in which demonstrators burned an Israeli flag and chanted “go to hell” and “no to normalisation with Israel”. A number of important political actors in the country have also signalled their disapproval of the announcement. “The issue remains very controversial in Sudan as events of the past few days have shown. The burning of Israeli flags in Khartoum and statements from influential political leaders suggest that proceeding with normalisation with Israel would put the government in a tight spot,” Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, an independent researcher on Sudan, told The Guardian. “Hamdok has signalled he doesn’t believe that the transitional authorities have a mandate to carry out normalisation with Israel without a broader consultation of Sudanese political forces,” Gallopin added.

This underlines the fact that Sudan, which is governed by a joint military-civilian administration, is engaged in a fraught and difficult transition to democracy, with elections expected in 2022. As Bar’el noted: “Sudan is not the Emirates or Bahrain, in which power is held by royal families which do not allow democratic moves to replace a government. Sudan is a federal state in which local tribes have power and clout and in which civil protests have managed to remove a long-standing tyrannical government.”

Next up?

Trump dropped a heavy hint on Friday that more agreements with Israel are in the pipeline, specifically name-checking Saudi Arabia. Israeli officials reportedly believe that Oman – which Netanyahu visited in 2018 – may be next to normalise relations with the Jewish state. Israeli media have also reported that the head of Mossad, Yossi Cohen, has suggested that Saudi Arabia is holding off until after the US elections before moving ahead and establishing ties with Israel. The Gulf kingdom has welcomed the UAE and Bahrain agreements and prevented Palestinian requests for Arab summits to condemn them.

But speculation about the future should not detract from the significance of the past two months; a period in which more states have made peace with the State of Israel than did so in the previous 72 years of its existence.