What was going on in the minds of Sudanese leader General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when they went under the cover of darkness to Entebbe in Uganda? What drove them to respond to the overt and covert mediators and brokers, including those who organised and praised their meeting, and those who promised great benefits for Sudan as, perhaps, a future ex-name on the US blacklist of countries supporting terrorism?
Al-Burhan is “developing” what his ousted predecessor started in the form of modest steps towards normalisation with Israel. Towards the end of Omar Al-Bashir’s presidency, Khartoum hinted several times at its intention to get closer to Israel and seek a rapprochement. He opened his country’s airspace to Israeli aircraft and made a major U-turn in Sudan’s positions and Arab, regional and international alliances.
The general has his eyes set on US recognition of his government’s legitimacy; it is an assortment of “generals” and “revolutionaries”, with the military institution playing a specific role, relying on the Rapid Support Forces that have been closely associated with the Janjaweed groups in Darfur with the same role. This role is to remove Sudan from the blacklist and restore relations between Washington and Khartoum.
That’s the main, direct goal of this major step in normalisation which, unfortunately, has occurred before the ink had dried on the two closing statements of the emergency Khartoum and Jeddah summits regarding the US “deal of the century”. Sudan is following the approach of governments that now view normalisation with Israel as a goal, guarantee and condition for their continued existence.
However, the more important long-term goal of this risky step serves the generals’ personal intentions to stay in power after riding in on the back of the noble Sudanese popular and social revolution. The military’s road to government forever passes through Tel Aviv and perhaps the move of the Sudanese Embassy to Jerusalem. The rule that governs the behaviour of regimes whose legitimacy is contested looks as if it is “be with Israel and don’t worry”.
As for Netanyahu, he is racing against the clock before Israel’s third early election within twelve months on 2 March. He rushed to have the details of the deal of the century revealed and promoted the breakthroughs in his relations with Africa, as well as the Arab and Muslim world. He is also promoting imminent successes in capitals that have never had diplomatic relations with Israel, investing in Trump’s moment in the White House in order to put the weight of the most powerful country behind the radical right-wing’s candidate in the upcoming election.
It was no coincidence that among the first to call Al-Burhan to congratulate him on his normalisation meeting with Netanyahu was US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and that the first invitation to the Chairman of the Sovereignty Council in Khartoum came just hours after the meeting in Entebbe. We must prepare ourselves mentally for potential surprises with other Arab generals who are suffering greatly from a lack of legitimacy and are under pressure from brokers and mediators not only to build closer relations with Washington, but also — and importantly — with Tel Aviv. The way to Washington’s heart is clearly through Israel’s stomach.
I do not rule out the fact that Entebbe was chosen deliberately as the location for this first meeting between Al-Burhan and Netanyahu by the Israeli leader himself. The Ugandan city is near the shores of Lake Victoria, where Netanyahu’s brother, Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu died in 1976 at the hands of a guerrilla group. I believe that Netanyahu the Prime Minister wanted to avenge the blood of Netanyahu the Colonel, albeit after nearly half a century. It is also as if he is mocking the capital of the “Three No’s” resolution agreed in Khartoum on 1 September 1967: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it…” was one of the most important resolutions in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Addustour on 5 February 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.