Israeli and Sudanese representatives held a secret meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, last year to discuss diplomatic relations in exchange for Israeli aid to Sudan.
The revelation was made by Israel's Channel 10 news yesterday, quoting a source familiar with the meeting. The meeting is thought to have taken place around a year ago between an Israeli Foreign Ministry envoy and a team of senior representatives from Sudan, including then-intelligence chief Mohamed Atta.
According to the source, the two parties discussed "the warming of relations between the countries and possible Israeli aid to Sudan in the fields of medicine, agriculture and the economy," the Times of Israel reported.
The Israeli daily added that the meeting was conducted with the full knowledge of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The revelation comes in the wake of rumours this week that Sudan and Israel are considering opening diplomatic relations. The senior leader of Sudan's ruling National Congress Party, Abdel Sakhi Abbas, was yesterday forced to deny claims that Netanyahu is due to visit Sudanese capital Khartoum. Abbas stressed: "It is impossible that Netanyahu visits Sudan. There is nothing to deal with such an official visit," lambasting the rumours as "completely false".
Discussions of normalisation between Sudan and Israel have gained pace following the visit of Chadian President Idriss Deby to Israel on Sunday. His visit was the first of its kind by a leader of Chad, which severed bilateral ties with Israel in 1972. Speaking at a press conference with Netanyahu, Deby emphasised that "all options are open" for cooperation between the two countries, adding that Israel had supplied weapons to Chad during its war with the northern rebels. "We have a shared struggle against the sickening evil of this century, which is terrorism," Deby said.
It is thought that, in addition to Chad and Sudan, Israel is hoping to establish ties with Mali and Niger. An anonymous senior Israeli official told Israel's Channel 13 that the main reason for this is to allow Israeli aircraft to use African airspace en route to South America, a route which would reduce current travel time by four hours.
Yet the initiatives will also be seen in the broader context of Israel's normalisation drive with Muslim and Arab countries. In the past few weeks Israeli establishment figures have made a number of visits to Oman and the United Arab Emirates, as well as making diplomatic overtures to Bahrain. Last week Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth predicted that Bahrain would sign a peace treaty with Israel next year, quoting Rabbi Marc Schneier as saying: "The Gulf states are racing to establish diplomatic relations with Israel."
For their part, Palestinian factions have criticised this normalisation, with Hamas describing it as "a stab in the back of the just Palestinian cause". Official Hamas spokesman Abdel-Latif Al-Qanou called on Arab states "to stop all forms of normalisation with the Israeli occupation, isolating it and disclosing its crimes against the Palestinians," adding: "The Zionist Israeli occupation will remain the main enemy for the Palestinians and the Arab nations, and Netanyahu's visits to the Arab states will not legitimise it."