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Sudan surprises Israel by rushing to normalise relations

February 9, 2023 at 3:35 pm

Sudan’s Acting Foreign Minister Ali Al-Sadiq [@YvesUitGent/Twitter]

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s recent visit to Sudan was followed by expectations that the African country will soon sign a normalisation agreement, thus ending 75 years of hostility with the occupation state. Those years witnessed Sudanese troops fighting alongside other Arab soldiers against Israel, and Khartoum hosting a conference in 1967 that is famous for its “Three Noes”: no peace with Israel; no recognition of Israel; no negotiations with Israel. Normalisation is becoming more likely as Israelis reveal preparations for a visit by a high-ranking Sudanese delegation headed by a brigadier with ministerial status.

That visit is expected within the next few days; it follows hard on the heels of Cohen’s visit to Khartoum where he met the President of the Transitional Council, Major General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and other senior officials. The Sudanese delegation is expected to hold talks and discussions with their Israeli counterparts about the details of the normalisation agreement and strengthening their relations.

During his visit, Cohen presented a draft of the proposed agreement between the two countries. Back in Tel Aviv, he said that it is expected to be signed this year after the transfer of power in Sudan to a civilian government. Sudan will then be the fourth Arab country to normalise relations with Israel, after the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, within the framework of the Abraham Accords.

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Israelis view Sudan as exceptionally important, as it has strategically located access to the Red Sea; is the third largest country in Africa, with an area of 1.8 million km2; and has a population of 47 million. It fought alongside other Arab countries in the 1948 Nakba War and the 1967 Six-Day War, and it has sent weapons to the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. Normalising relations between Israel and Sudan will thus put an end to 75 years of hostility.

In the discussions between the Sudanese and Israeli delegations, Cohen expressed a desire to assist Sudan’s development efforts in a variety of areas, including security, food, water resource management and agriculture. Security cooperation is likely to be a major part of the deal. He presented his ministry’s aid programme which would focus on projects and capacity-building in humanitarian aid, water purification and general medicine.

“We are building a new reality with the Sudanese,” he said, “and its three noes will be replaced with three yeses: yes to negotiations with Israel, yes to recognition of Israel, and yes to peace with it.”

It is no longer a secret that Cohen’s public visit came after years of secret contacts between Khartoum and Tel Aviv. A peace agreement with Sudan, it is claimed, will enhance regional stability, contribute to Israel’s national security and open the door to establishing and strengthening relations with other countries in Africa.

The first secret contacts between the two countries were in January 2021, but neither normalisation nor full diplomatic relations resulted. Cohen visited Sudan two years ago when he was minister of intelligence, and confirmed that he had spoken with Al-Burhan about security and intelligence issues.

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Israeli officials accompanying Cohen revealed that he had told Al-Burhan that Israel has trade relations with Egypt and Ethiopia, and claimed that the Sudanese regime is moving in a pro-Western direction, abandoning its previous path of supporting violence and militias. Much to the Israelis’ surprise, Cohen was received in Sudan with great warmth and Khartoum seems to be rushing to normalise relations.

However, some Israelis are wondering whether this initiative with Sudan is a major step or just a show, especially that nothing dramatic that requires a change in relations has actually taken place. Moreover, Sudan’s position towards Israel has not changed officially since the agreement to normalise.

In 2020, Sudan agreed to end the state of war with Israel after US mediation, and a phone call was arranged between President Donald Trump, Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. When this was made public, it sparked public opposition in Sudan. Nevertheless, by the end of October 2020, Netanyahu said that Israel would send a shipment of flour worth $5 million to Sudan.

A few weeks later, an Israeli delegation arrived in Sudan for discussions on mutual recognition. In January 2021, Sudan signed the declarative part of the normalisation agreements at the US Embassy in Khartoum in the presence of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. In April of the same year, Khartoum cancelled the Israel boycott law issued in 1958.

The US has removed Sudan from its list of countries supporting terrorism. This could be what has prompted the Sudanese to sign the agreement with Israel, as it would see economic and other sanctions lifted.

Israeli diplomats have confirmed details of the start of the normalisation process with Sudan during the rule of ousted President Omar Al-Bashir. They were led then by Ronen Levy-Maoz — the “Shadow man” — who worked for years as Netanyahu’s envoy to Africa. He realised very early on the importance of Sudan to Israel.

For many years, Sudan hosted Hamas leaders and was a military and political ally of Iran and Hezbollah, who used it as a base to smuggle weapons to Gaza and built a huge factory near Khartoum to produce long-range missiles. Suddenly, all of that is evaporating into thin air, and Sudan, host of the Three Noes conference, is now siding with apartheid Israel. Nobody could have predicted that this would happen.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.