From hostility to normalization: The ebbs and flows of Sudan-Israel relations

The Cradle, March 31 2023

Sudan’s relations with Israel have vacillated between periods of hostility and outreach. Today, Khartoum’s leaders view these ties as a means to gain international legitimacy, while Tel Aviv aims to eliminate Khartoum as a haven for pro-Iran and Palestinian resistance factions.

Unlike most Arab countries whose relations with Israel have been either consistently hostile or friendly, Sudanese-Israeli ties have vacillated according to the political orientation of the leader-du-jour in Khartoum.

The latest Sudanese swing toward normalization with Tel Aviv became possible only after the 2019 overthrow of long-time President Omar al-Bashir. In February 2020, a secret meeting was held between the head of the Transitional Sovereignty Council (TSC), Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Uganda, which marked a significant turning point.

In January 2021, the new rulers of Khartoum signed the US-UAE-brokered “Abraham Accords,” and on 2 February, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen paid a historic visit to Sudan to meet with Burhan in public. The trip marked a significant step forward in Sudan’s recognition of Israel, and its ascension into the small group of Arab states focused on protecting Tel Aviv’s security.

This was also the first step toward Sudan’s abandonment of the “Three No’s” declaration in Khartoum’s 1967 Arab summit: No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel. Thus began Sudan’s disavowal of its old allies in the Palestinian resistance such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) by its decision to stop providing a supply crossing for Gaza’s resistance.

Despite these developments, the Arab Opinion Index 2022 released in January revealed that 72.4 percent of Sudanese still reject the recognition of Israel. However, the survey also shows that Sudan ranks second in the percentage of Arab respondents who agree with recognizing Tel Aviv – after Morocco – with a rate of 18.2 percent. This is a significant leap from the 2 percent poll result in 2011, and the highest among all Arab countries in 2016 and 2017.

Ebbs and flows

It is noteworthy that the percentage of Sudanese respondents who approve of normalization correlates with critical events in Sudan’s political history, particularly during regime changes.

For example, the lowest approval ratings coincided with the Arab Spring revolutions and the secession of South Sudan in 2011, while the highest percentages accompanied the onset of Bashir’s rule, which had been inclined toward normalization with Israel. After his overthrow, those numbers dropped, before rising again following the 2019 coup and the current government’s disposition toward normalization.

Sudanese-Israeli contacts date back to the 1950s. In 1951, a large Israeli delegation visited Khartoum under the pretext of discussing the importation of Sudanese goods, but was also there to establish communications with various political parties.

At the time, Sudan was part of Egypt and was seeking Israeli and US support for independence from Cairo. Meanwhile, Israel was worried about an Egyptian-Sudanese alliance under the Arab nationalist (Nasserist) umbrella. For the National Umma Party, led by Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi – son of the Sudanese anti-colonial hero ‘Imam al-Mahdi’ – Israel was viewed as a potential ally against Egyptian political and military influence in Sudan.

According to the book “The Secret Wars of Israeli Intelligence” by Ian Black and Benny Morris, secret negotiations took place in Istanbul in 1955, preceded by meetings in London between the Israeli cabinet’s Arab Affairs Adviser  Josh Palmon and some Umma Party leaders who expressed a desire to improve relations with Tel Aviv.

When Sudan gained its independence in 1956, Khartoum already had a positive relationship with Israel, even during the tripartite aggression against Egypt that year. The new Sudanese rulers were frustrated with Egypt’s decision to close the Suez Canal, which had repercussions on Sudan’s cotton exports, the lifeblood of its economy.

In August 1957, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Khalil met with Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir in Paris to try to neutralize the Sudanese role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Earlier, that February, Khartoum had requested economic and military aid from Washington, as well as increased financial and political support for the Umma Party government. A month later, US Vice President Richard Nixon visited the Sudanese capital.

The announcement of Sudan’s rapprochement with Israel and US aid to Sudan sparked massive protests led by the communist Anti-Colonialism Front and the pro-Egypt National Unionist Party. Khalil was unable to mobilize an effective majority in parliament and asked army generals to take power, which they did via the coup led by General Ibrahim Abboud in November 1958.

Khalil welcomed the coup as it prevented Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser from annexing Sudan to Egypt. After the army took control, there was a major shift in the nation’s foreign policy, and boycott laws against Israel began to be implemented. Legislation was adopted to fine and/or imprison those who communicated with Israeli institutions or individuals. In July 1958, Parliament approved the Boycott of Israel Law, which was only repealed decades later on 6 April, 2021.

Israeli relations with Sudanese rebel groups

Abboud pursued a policy of rapprochement with Cairo before a massive popular uprising overthrew him in 1964. In response, Israel began establishing close relations with the rebel groups in southern Sudan and provided them with military support in a guerrilla war waged against the Sudanese army.

During Uri Lubrani’s tenure as Tel Aviv’s ambassador in Addis Ababa from 1967 to 1972, Israeli special forces officers and troops were transferred to southern Sudan, via Ethiopia, to train armed separatist movements. Israel strengthened its relations with the Anyanya movement, the most powerful Sudanese rebel militia of the time. Since then, the Israeli embassies in Uganda, Ethiopia, Chad, and the Congo have hosted meetings between Israeli officials and leaders of the rebel movements.

In the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967, Sudan became more involved in regional anti-Israel activities. The Fourth Arab Summit was held in Khartoum, during which the slogan of the “Three No’s” was established, and reconciliation took place between the two most important Arab leaders of the day, Egypt’s Nasser and Saudi King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud.

In 1969, a military coup led by Muhammad Jaafar Nimeiri marked a decisive stage in the history of Sudan. Nimeiri dissolved political parties and founded the Sudanese Socialist Union. He also gave southern Sudan autonomy, signing a peace agreement in 1972 which ended the civil war and ushered in eleven years of calm.

Nimeiri’s policies countered Israeli plans which aimed to exploit the Sudanese civil war to find a foothold in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea – areas that Israel considers strategically important for its security. Consequently, Israeli support for rebel groups in southern Sudan declined as a result of the reconciliation and peace agreement between the north and the south.

Secretive dealings

However, clandestine relations between Sudan and Israel continued. One example of this is the deal to smuggle “Falasha” Jews through Sudan, one of the largest population transfer operations in Israel’s history. In 1979, at the request of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat mediated with Nimeiri to allow Ethiopian Jews to immigrate to Israel via Sudan.

The Sudanese president agreed on the condition that the operation be carried out in complete secrecy. However, the exposure of the mass transfers led to its cessation, leaving about 1,000 Falasha Jews behind in Sudan. In March 1985, Nimeiri, under pressure from Washington, allowed the transfer of the rest of them to Israel on US planes.

The exposure of the deal increased popular discontent with Nimeiri, who was at the time pursuing US assistance to persuade the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to support his economically distressed country. In 1985, a popular uprising led to the fall of the Nimeiri government.

After a transitional period, Sadiq al-Mahdi won parliamentary elections and formed five governments between April 1986 and April 1989. These governments were plagued with problems and failed to end the renewed war with South Sudan, to which Israel had resumed funding.

Political instability led to a military coup in June 1989, carried out by officers close to the National Islamic Front led by Hassan al-Turabi. After the coup, Omar al-Bashir took power in what was described as a “national liberation revolution.”

The new government supported the anti-Israel camp in the region, opened its doors to Palestinian resistance movements, and strengthened its relations with Iran and Iraq, countries that were among the most hostile to Israel in the region.

Sudan hosted individuals and groups that Israel classifies as its enemies, including Al Qaeda Leader Osama bin Laden (1990 -1996), his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the internationalist activist Carlos the Jackal.

An evolving relationship

Today, Israel views Sudan as a base for supporting Iran’s activities, a haven for Hamas and PIJ leaders, and a gateway for Iranian arms convoys to the Palestinian resistance factions in the Gaza Strip.

On the other hand, Israel played a key role in the declaration of independence of South Sudan after an overwhelming majority (98.93 percent) voted for secession in the 2011 referendum. Israel became the fourth country – after Sudan, Egypt, and the US – to establish a diplomatic mission in the new country.

Israel also supported the establishment of a military for Southern Sudan, and established relations with armed groups in other Sudanese regions such as Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan.

In 2017, there were renewed signs that the Sudanese government may consider normalizing relations with Israel. Sudan’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Investment Mubarak al-Fadil al-Mahdi announced in a televised interview that normalization could be possible if it serves Sudanese interests. Later that year, a meeting between Israeli and Sudanese officials took place in Istanbul.

In 2019, Mossad Director Yossi Cohen reportedly met the head of Sudanese intelligence, Salah Abdallah Gosh, during the annual Munich Security Conference. While Sudan’s intelligence community initially denied the meeting, the Sudanese government’s openness to Israel resulted in the US suspension of some economic sanctions on Sudan. However, normalization remained on hold until the military coup that overthrew Bashir in 2019, after popular protests erupted over the country’s economic situation.

Legitimacy, the price for normalization?

After the coup, an understanding was reached between the new Sudanese rulers, the US, and Israel. The US pledged to help Sudan regain ‘sovereign immunity,’ which would protect the Khartoum government against any compensation claims from when Sudan was on the list of “state sponsors of terrorism.”

Additionally, the US and its international allies committed themselves to reducing Sudan’s debt burden, including debt forgiveness under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative.

On 23 October, 2020, US President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Chairman of the TSC Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok, announced the start of negotiations on cooperation agreements between Israel and Sudan in the fields of technology, agriculture, aviation, and immigration.

In June 2021, Sudanese Minister of Justice Nasreddin Abdel Bari signed the Abraham Accords during US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s visit to Khartoum.

However, given the deeply ingrained and widespread Sudanese hostility toward Israel, it is worth examining why the TSC is so keen to normalize relations with Israel.

Sudanese international affairs researcher Ibrahim Nasser attributes this to “the search by Sudan’s coup regime for international legitimacy. The US, the UAE and Israel,” he says, “are exploiting this to pressure Sudan toward normalization.”

“Since the overthrow of Bashir, internal powers have been in constant competition over legitimacy to ensure their survival. Normalization is part of the competition between these powers and each of them presenting itself as a future authority,” Nasser notes.

Given that Sudanese-Israeli relations have historically fluctuated between cautious rapprochement and full-on hostility, the most important question is: Has Sudan joined the normalization club in a permanent manner, or will we continue to see shifts in relations with Tel Aviv after every change in Khartoum’s leadership?

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