Sudan is on the cusp of normalizing relations with Israel, and this is a significant development, a milestone, in the annals of the bitter Arab-Israeli conflict.
According to reports, Sudan — a strategically key nation on the shores of the Red Sea and the largest country in Africa — will formally establish diplomatic ties with Israel within about a week, becoming the fifth Arab state to do so after Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
In symbolic terms, a rapprochement between Sudan and Israel would be a remarkable turning point in Israel’s protracted dispute with the Arab world.
The implacable “three no’s” of Khartoum were enunciated in the Sudanese capital at an Arab League summit in August and September of 1967, shortly after the Six Day War. In a resolution that would define Arab policy toward Israel for more than a decade, Arab states unanimously agreed not to recognize Israel, negotiate with Israel or forge peace with Israel.
This rejectionist policy held firm until Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem in 1977 and Egypt established formal relations with Israel two years later.
Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994.
The majority of Arab League members, ranging from Syria to Iraq and from Lebanon to Morocco, still abide by this rigid formula. But if Sudan, as expected, recognizes Israel, this pan-Arab consensus will be irretrievably battered, much to Israel’s satisfaction and the Palestinians’ dismay.
It seems like Sudan’s normalization agreement with Israel is a done deal. On October 22, Sudanese officials confirmed that a U.S.-Israeli delegation visited Sudan this week to wrap it up.
“I have a reasonable basis to believe that the announcement will come before November 3,” said Israel’s minister of regional cooperation, Ofir Akunis, in a reference to the U.S. presidential election.
Another report claims that Sudan will make an official announcement after U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak to Sudan’s transitional leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and its prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok.
Sudan has been ruled by a temporary Sovereign Council since the overthrow last year of its long-time ruler, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, whose policies angered Israel and the United States.
Bashir, a Muslim Brotherhood follower, permitted the late Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to set up shop in Sudan in the late 1990s, formed close relations with Iran, and allowed Hamas to smuggle Iranian weapons from its territory to the Gaza Strip. In response, the Israeli Air Force bombed several Hamas arms convoys, a missile manufacturing factory, an Iranian ship and a weapons depot in Sudan.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Israeli agents carried out secret operations in Sudan to facilitate the transportation of tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
From 1998 to 2000, Sudan was complicit in Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and on the American destroyer Cole in Yemen.
In 2016, Bashir severed ties with Iran and distanced himself from Hamas, resulting in an improvement of relations between Sudan and the United States.
Last winter, Netanyahu met Burhan in Uganda for talks that the United Arab Emirates reportedly arranged. Shortly afterward, Sudan opened its air space to Israeli planes.
Two months ago, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made what was hailed as the first commercial flight from Tel Aviv to Khartoum. Pompeo told Hamdok, the Sudanese prime minister, that Sudan would be removed from a list of state sponsors of terrorism if it compensated the U.S. victims of Al Qaeda’s terrorism and normalized relations with Israel. As an added sweetener, Pompeo offered Sudan $80 million in aid to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
The removal of Sudan from the terrorism list would be extremely helpful to its ailing economy, enabling the Sudanese government to receive international financial assistance, debt relief and foreign investment.
Only three countries apart from Sudan are still one that list — Syria, Iran and North Korea.
Despite Washington’s incentives, Hamdok was reluctant to normalize relations with Israel. He contended that grassroots hostility to Israel remains high and that a normalization agreement with Israel would fuel unrest and instability, block Sudan’s transition to democracy, and generate support for the Islamist bloc, which was shunted aside after the fall of the Bashir regime.
Hamdok’s deputy chief of staff, Amjad Farid, acknowledged that Sudan has “no reason to be in a state of war” with Israel. “But normalization with Israel is a complicated issue with social and political dimensions that go back decades and are linked to the history of the Arab region.”
In sharp contrast, the Sudanese armed forces vigorously lobbied for normalization. “We don’t see any problem to have peace with any country, including Israel,” said Sovereign Council member General Ibrahim Gabir.
Sudan’s deputy head of state, General Mohammed Hamdan Daglo, said, “Israel is developed. The entire world works with Israel. For development, for agriculture, we need Israel.”
But out of solidarity with the Palestinians, he added, the depth of Sudan’s normalization would not match that of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
In recent days, new signs emerged that Sudan, its reservations notwithstanding, was moving inexorably closer to normalization.
On October 18, the Sudanese government permitted the first conference of the Popular Initiative for Normalization with Israel to take place in Khartoum. Its previous attempt to hold a conference was thwarted by the regime.
Najm al-Dinb Adam Abdullah, a member of that new organization, said, “The Israel taboo … has left Sudan a prisoner of history. Since the 1960s, Sudan has been imprisoned by certain ideological concepts. We believe that Sudan has remained in the same place since the “Three No’s, and has not been able to move forward.”
On October 20, a major Sudanese Islamic scholar, Sheikh Abdel-Rahman Hassan Hamed, issued a fatwa permitting normalization, only a month after a rival cleric ruled that Islamic law forbids relations with Israel.
Two days ago, Pompeo implicitly urged Sudan “to recognize Israel, the rightful Jewish homeland, (and) to acknowledge (its) fundamental right to exist as a country.”
As he told reporters, “We are working diligently with them to make the case for why that’s in the Sudanese government’s best interest to make that sovereign decision. We hope that they’ll do that, and we hope that they’ll do that quickly.”
It would appear that Sudan will comply with his request sooner rather than later, taking a bold step forward that will redefine the Arab-Israeli conflict.