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Is Sudan secretly talking to Israel?

Image of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir [File photo]
Image of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir [File photo]

The Israeli press have made no secret recently of the possibility that diplomatic channels could be established between Tel Aviv and Khartoum. Last September, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz boldly announced that the Israeli government had contacted the United States to encourage it to take steps to improve relations with Sudan. The Israeli media were also quick to pick up on statements made by Ibrahim Suleiman, a member of the Sudan foreign affairs committee who claimed that the majority of the committee involved in the Sudanese National Dialogue process had called for the establishment of “normal and conditioned” relations with Israel.

These media reports followed the severing of diplomatic ties between Iran and Sudan, and signal a major swing in the foreign policy of the Sudanese government. Since the creation of the Zionist state in 1948, Sudan has been a resolute supporter for the rights of the Palestinian people and has firmly distanced itself from the Israeli state. Sudan declared war on Israel in 1967 and more recently in October 2012 when Israel dropped missiles on a factory in Khartoum, President Omar Al-Bashir referred to Israel as the “Zionist enemy that will remain the enemy”. Sudan does not and has never recognised the Zionist state and until 2005, Sudanese passports clearly signified travel was permitted to any country in the world except Israel.

Sudanese Foreign Minister, Ibrahim Ghandour

Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour [File photo]

However, Israel’s direction of travel has reached in the East and Horn of Africa extending to most of the countries in the region with the exception of Sudan. Diplomatic relations have been established with Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda and now South Sudan. Arms shipments have also been given to Sudanese rebels such as the Sudan Liberation Movement’s (SLM) Abdul Wahid who set up office in Israel. The late leader of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), Khalil Ibrahim, also supported the principle of diplomatic relations with the Tel Aviv government.

However, it seems that there have been two motivating factors behind the move to normalise relations with Israel. The first came when a member of the Sudan National Dialogue, Rajah Mustapha, established the Sudanese Jewish Solidarity Alliance right under the noses of the Sudanese government in Khartoum. The alliance was formed post the National Dialogue talks and follows Ibrahim Suleiman’s declaration that the majority of members supported having ties with Israel. But sources speaking to MEMO, on condition of anonymity, said there were very few voices in the committee that supported the idea. “Although the notion was included in the first draft of the National Dialogue document, it was not well-supported and the final draft dismissed the idea,” he said.

Is the Sudanese foreign policy being controlled by Saudi?

The second factor behind the move appears to be a condition that the United States is placing on Sudan to recognise the Zionist state as a precondition to having economic sanctions imposed in 1997 and 2005 lifted and the terror designate state sponsor removed. Discussions to lift the sanctions culminated in the temporary removal of the embargo against Khartoum without the removal of its name from the state sponsor terror list. Israeli media has been quick to seize on the response given by the Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour when asked about the possibility of establishing relations with Israel, “We do not mind to study any such proposal,” he is quoted as saying.

His response was seen by observers to be a significant softening of the Sudanese stance against Israel and several media outlets in Israel have jumped on the comments to demonstrate the claim that Sudan’s having a change of heart.

However, Ali Al-Sadig, a spokesman for Sudan’s foreign ministry, was quoted by Agence de Presse Africaine as saying that the foreign minister’s comments were taken out of context.

The support of the government and the people of Sudan to [the] Palestinian cause is well known. It did not change and will remain unchanged.

The Israeli press has also seized on recent comments made by the President of Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir, who told the Saudi newspaper Al-Okaz on 14 March 2016 that “even if Israel had conquered Syria, it would not have inflicted the destruction taking place there right now, would not have killed the number of people killed so far and would not have expelled people the way they are being expelled now.”

His comments were greeted with a voice of optimism in Tel Aviv, although his words seem pointed at the Syrian regime. However, Al-Bashir seems to suggest that Bashar Al-Assad’s atrocities against his own people were worse than the Israelis’ violence against Palestinians.

Whatever the truth of the contacts between the states, the possibility of resuming relations with Israel has sparked a debate in Sudan among religious scholars. In February, former member of the Sudan Board of Scholars and the President of the Islamic Wasat Party, Yusuf Al-Koda, said there was no Islamic evidence that prevents normalising relations with Israel.

In a conference titled “On [Religious] Awakening and Dialogue” held on 6 February 2017, Al-Koda, called on Sudan to declare a truce with Israel and establish diplomatic relations, saying that there is no religious prohibition to prevent this. As evidence he mentioned the Hudaibiya agreement that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) signed with his infidel rivals.

But Press Attaché to the Sudanese Embassy in London, Khalid Mubarak, told MEMO:

Sudan is a signatory to the Saudi initiative of March 2002 that the United States and other countries in the world also accept. The proposal suggests that diplomatic relations and recognition of the Israeli state can only take place if Israel withdraws from occupied territories including East Jerusalem back to the 1967 boarders and allows a two-party state system to be established; Israel to date has not given a positive reply.

Mubarak has himself, over the years, investigated the way in which the Zionist lobby have worked to undermine Sudan. In his publication “The Israel Lobby and Sudan”, he catalogues accusations that Zionist groups have levelled against Sudan. He told MEMO Sudan’s policy was unlikely to change.

If the news of covert Sudanese contact with Israel is true, it will be unpopular among the Islamic component of the Sudanese government who have been loyal proponents of the rights for Palestinians to return and establish their own state. Sudanese view the resistance movements in Palestine led by groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad favourably.

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