Details of the meeting between Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sudan's transitional head of state General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan suggest that the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the two countries is closer than ever before. Speaking to the media, Al-Burhan described his meeting with Netanyahu as "comfortable", held over a buffet lunch at the invitation of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, in which the two guests exchanged pleasantries.
First reports about the meeting came two hours after the lifting of a news blackout. In a bizarre inquisition, Israeli media said that when asked if he was afraid to greet Netanyahu, the Sudanese leader simply said, "No, I was very comfortable with it. We shook hands and then started talking."
Suggestions that Al-Burhan was overwhelmed by Netanyahu were followed by claims that he promised to normalise diplomatic relations, undermining the Sudanese general's assertion that no such promise was made. The meeting was apparently arranged by the UAE, with unconfirmed reports claiming that it was a way of giving tacit support to the Donald Trump "peace plan" known as the "deal of the century". Al-Burhan denied discussing this plan with Netanyahu, insisting that he met with the Israeli leader in the interests of Sudan only.
It transpires, however, that Netanyahu went to Uganda with his own set of demands, namely that Al-Burhan should allow Israeli aircraft to use Sudanese airspace and for the border between South Sudan and Sudan to be reopened to allow trade to resume. Both demands benefit the economy of Israel, which has become an important investor in South Sudan. Al-Burhan did not mention the Israeli demands but said that the meeting was all about lifting US sanctions on Sudan: "In our meeting on the third of this month, we stressed the role Israel needs to play in relation to Sudan's listing as a state sponsor of terrorism."
Although Al-Burhan went on to describe the meeting in positive terms, he claimed that only people with "limited ideologies" would object to the reopening of diplomatic channels to further Sudan's national interests. Such people may well include ordinary Sudanese, some of whom continue to regard Israel as a rogue state and a far greater threat to peace in the Middle East than Iran, the country accused by Gulf countries of destabilising the region and a former close ally of Sudan under ousted President Omar Al-Bashir. The mood towards normalising relations, however, appears to be one of indifference. A general preoccupation with the rising cost of living in Sudan makes the Israeli question pale into insignificance.
Nevertheless, Al-Burhan's visit did prompt an angry reaction within Sudan. Civilian members of the transitional government complained that no consultation took place before the meeting. Many of them support establishing ties with Israel, but their complaint focused on the belief that the civilian Prime Minister rather than the military interim head of state should be leading Sudan in such discussions. They argue that foreign policy is the domain of the civilians as outlined in the constitutional agreement signed in August and Al-Burhan stands accused of overstepping his authority. Outside Sudan, the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip expressed their dismay at the meeting; Sudanese flags were burned in protest at the publicly-declared detente with the Zionist state, which is still technically at war with Sudan.
Despite such reactions, it has been an open secret that indirect talks with Israel were already taking place during Bashir's rule. At least three high-profile meetings were held within the past two years of Bashir's leadership, including meetings in Istanbul and Cairo. The most widely publicised face-to-face talks involved the former head of intelligence, Salah Abdullah Gosh, who allegedly met the Israelis without Omar Al-Bashir's knowledge. Many, particularly supporters of the ex-intelligence chief, believe that Gosh continues to act as the facilitator between Al-Burhan, the UAE and Israel.
However, Najwa Abbas Mohammed Ahmed, a Sudanese national based in Uganda and a former employee of NASA in the US, is credited with arranging the meeting in Entebbe. Commentator and journalist Mekki Elmograbi welcomed this direct communication: "Sudan must talk directly to Israel to protect its own interest and not allow other nations to add preconditions. Public opinion now supports putting Sudan's interest first."
For now, the leadership in Sudan wants to appear to be making all the right moves and overtures. The question is, will normalising relations with Israel be a goal which will be finalised after Sudan's removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list, or will open relations with Israel be a precondition to having the sanctions lifted?
Whatever the situation is, the new direct channel with Israel under the "Sudan First" policy could hold the key to the country's future prosperity. At the very least, Sudan's interim leader hopes that the meeting with Netanyahu was a turning point. He told reporters last week that he made "istikhara" – the prayer for guidance — before going ahead with it. However, despite the resultant optimism — which has led to a meeting being planned between Al-Burhan and the US President Donald Trump — doubts remain about the value of moving towards full diplomatic relations with Israel, and turning Sudan's back on the Palestinian cause in the process.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.