In an unprecedented move, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir allowed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fly over South Sudan.
Sudan – whose aviation authorities control South Sudan's airspace – does not hold formal diplomatic ties with Israel and, like other Muslim and Arab countries, does not allow its airspace to be used by Israeli aircraft.
However, Khartoum yesterday allowed an El Al plane to carry Netanyahu back from a day visit to neighbouring Chad, during which the two countries agreed to restore relations for the first time since 1972. Netanyahu labelled the visit a "historic and important breakthrough" which forms "part of the revolution we are [undertaking] in the Arab and Muslim world".
According to the Times of Israel, the Israeli Prime Minister's Office "asked reporters who accompanied Netanyahu to and from Chad not to publish the fact that the flight home [to Israel] was being routed over South Sudan before the plane had landed at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport". Details of the flight were kept secret "presumably for security reasons and to prevent any last-minute efforts from other parties to change the decision by the Sudanese authorities," the Israeli daily added.
That the flight was allowed to go ahead will be seen as yet more evidence of Al-Bashir's indecisiveness on his country's ties with Israel. Earlier this month, Al-Bashir refused a request by Kenya's national air carrier to fly over Sudanese airspace on route from Kenyan capital Nairobi to Tel Aviv. Al-Bashir said at the time that he rejected "any normalisation with Israel".
His comments raised eyebrows given that, only a few days earlier, Al-Bashir revealed that he had been advised to begin normalising relations with Israel in order to ensure stability in Sudan, which has been rocked by weeks of anti-government protests. Al-Bashir did not specify who had given him such advice.
In November, a senior leader of Sudan's ruling National Congress Party, Abdel Sakhi Abbas, was forced to deny rumours that Netanyahu planned to visit Khartoum. Abbas lambasted the claims – originally made by Israel's public broadcaster Kan – as "completely false", stressing that Sudan has "no relations or ties with Israel". Just days later, it emerged that Israeli and Sudanese representatives had held a secret meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2017 to discuss establishing diplomatic relations in exchange for Israeli aid to Sudan.
Israel has been undertaking a major normalisation drive in recent months, which has seen Netanyahu and other Israeli establishment figures visit Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and now Chad. Though Israel and its main ally the US have been keen to paint these efforts as a positive step towards Israel's integration into the region, many are opposed to the initiative.
Yesterday ten Chadian UN peacekeepers were killed and a further 25 were injured in an attack by a militant group in Mali. The Al-Qaeda affiliated group – known as Jama'a Nusrat Al-Islam wal Muslimeen or "Group for the victory of Islam and Muslims" – claimed it had acted "in reaction" to Netanyahu's visit to Chad and Chadian President Idriss Deby's decision to restore relations with Israel. The attack took place near Aguelhok, in the Kidal region of northern Mali, which has been marred by violence since local militias took control of the area in 2012.
In a statement, the UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA) said: "The Secretary-General [Antonio Guterres] reaffirms that such acts will not diminish the resolve of the United Nations to continue supporting the people and Government of Mali in their efforts to build peace and stability in the country." Neither Chad nor Israel have issued statements on the attack.