Yes to Israel from Khartoum is only a side plot in Sudan drama – analysis

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Israelis need to realize that the situation in Sudan is very different from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Sudanese protesters chant slogans as they gather ahead of a rally to put pressure on the government to improve conditions and push ahead with reform in Khartoum, Sudan October 21, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS/ MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH)

Sudanese protesters chant slogans as they gather ahead of a rally to put pressure on the government to improve conditions and push ahead with reform in Khartoum, Sudan October 21, 2020.

(photo credit: REUTERS/ MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH)

The deeply symbolic value of normalization with Sudan should be clear to anyone familiar with the history of the Israel-Arab conflict.

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in his initial statement following the announcement of a third Arab state establishing ties with Israel: “In Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, in 1967, the Arab League adopted its three ‘No’s’: ‘No to peace with Israel, no to recognition of Israel and no to negotiations with Israel.’”

“However,” Netanyahu added, “today Khartoum has said, ‘Yes to peace with Israel, yes to recognition of Israel and yes to normalization with Israel.’”

The excitement is understandable. Unlike the UAE or Bahrain, this is a country where the hatred of Israel was clear for decades. It was a way station for Iranian arms going to Hamas and Hezbollah until fairly recently; Israel repeatedly bombed Sudan to stop the weapons from reaching their destinations.

This is a “great turnaround,” as Netanyahu said. It’s another domino falling, transforming Israel’s standing in the Middle East in a way that will make all Israelis more secure.

However, Israelis need to realize that the situation in Sudan is very different from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and that we are only a side plot in a much broader and more significant story for the African state.

Sudan has come out of hell. Dictator Omar al-Bashir, who controlled the country for 30 years, has been convicted of crimes against humanity and indicted in connection with the genocide in Darfur.

In the last decade, the country faced South Sudan’s secession and a civil war, which beyond the violence, also led to a huge slowdown in economic growth and hikes in food prices – and that economic downturn came after the International Money Fund reported half the country lived in poverty.

After Bashir was deposed in a military coup in April 2019, sparked by the rising cost of living, the country has been moving toward democracy with a transitional military-civilian government. That government has sought to resolve the conflict in Darfur and other regions, and while much work remains on that front, the government signed a peace deal with one armed group earlier this month.

One of the major obstacles to the burgeoning democracy’s much-needed economic reforms has been its designation by the US as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The designation was justified when it was assigned in 2013. Bashir harbored al-Qaeda for many years, and supported Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal, among others, in addition to being a part of Iran’s axis of international terror. But even Bashir began to turn away from Iran in recent years, and the transitional government has fully renounced terrorism ties.

As of this week, Sudan payed $355 million in compensation for victims of terror and then the US removed it from the state sponsors of terrorism list. The US is expected to provide Sudan with major economic aid and debt relief, and many other institutions and governments will be able to help Khartoum now that they are no longer designated abettors of terrorism.

On the way, though, Israel got tangled up in the story. In February, Sudanese Sovereignty Council Chairman Abdel Fattah al-Burhan met with Netanyahu, sparking talk of normalization between Sudan and Jerusalem.

Sudan agreed to open its airspace to flights to and from Israel, shortly before the coronavirus pandemic grounded the vast majority of those flights, anyway. And Burhan met significant resistance to establishing official ties with Israel, even though some Israeli companies, especially in the area of agricultural technology, were already quietly working to help Sudan.

After the UAE agreed to normalization with Israel, the US saw Sudan as a possible next country in line and pressured Khartoum to make an announcement of its own in conjunction with the negotiations to remove the state sponsor of terrorism designation.

The State Department has said, publicly and in response to queries from The Jerusalem Post, that ties with Israel was not a condition for that move and that Sudan is a sovereign state that can make its own decisions.

Even if that is technically true, the two things have come at the same time.

There was a divide in Khartoum between Burhan, who wanted to pursue ties with Israel regardless of them being linked with negotiations with the US about aid, and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok who preferred separating the issues.

Tayo A. Ali, a senior negotiation in the Darfur track of the Sudan peace process, explained last week that Hamdok “personally has no problem in principle” with the linkage, but is “obviously under pressure not to link the two tracks, [because] the media and most of the opinion in political discussion” oppose. Ali argued that Sudan has a “golden opportunity” to benefit from the economic, political, and diplomatic support that would come from agreeing to the linkage, and it Burhan, who shared that opinion, won out in the end.

Still, it’s likely that in a situation where a transitional government is making an unpopular move, that this normalization process will be much slower than the ones with the UAE and Bahrain – where the move is not popular with the Shi’ite majority, either, but the Sunni government is relatively stable.

It’s also unlikely at this point that the economic ties will remotely resemble the ones with the UAE. Sudan is not a tourism hot spot at the moment – though if things work out for them, one day “Sudan diving resort” may mean something more to Israelis than a front for smuggling Ethiopian Jews out in the 1980s – and the country is hardly in a position to invest in the Israeli tech sector.

Israel will benefit in the ways listed at the beginning of this article – the symbolic victory, plus greater security and stability.

What Sudan will likely be is another developing country to benefit from Israel’s know-how in agricultural and renewable energy technology. There may be Sudanese participants in programs sponsored by MASHAV, the Foreign Ministry’s Agency for International Development Cooperation.

But Israel will need to tread carefully in this situation, because we really are only an anecdote in the history being made in Sudan that has nothing to do with us.

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