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Sudan signals Israel detente after decades at war

Lewis Sanders IV | Ismail Azzam
February 4, 2020

In a diplomatic tour de force, Israel's premier said Sudan's leader has agreed to work towards normalizing relations. Experts have described the thaw as a "positive global development," but others remain skeptical.

Israeli flag
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/A. Widak

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent shock waves throughout the region when his office announced on Monday that Sudan had "agreed to start cooperation leading to normalization of the relationship between the two countries."

Sudan, an African country that has openly resisted Israel for decades, has undergone significant political change since the ouster of longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir on the heels of popular protests last year.

A transitional council comprising military officials and civilians is now running the country until 2022, and its leader appears ready to make amends. Netanyahu lauded his meeting in Uganda with Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, saying it marked a turning point for the two countries.

Netanyahu "believes that Sudan is headed in a new positive direction," his office said. "The Chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan … is eager to help his country modernize by taking it out of isolation and putting it on the world's map."

Read more: Sudan plots path towards democracy

'Positive global development'

Historically, Sudan has maintained aggressive policies against the state of Israel since its inception. In the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and Arab countries, the heads of eight Arab states issued the Khartoum Resolution that outright rejected peace efforts.

The document stipulated that Arab countries, including Egypt, Jordan and Sudan, would jointly oppose Israel, stating: "No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it." But decades after, that declaration is steadily losing its appeal.

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Yaakov Katz, editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, told DW that the signaling of possible Israeli-Sudanese rapprochement forms part of a "more substantive" process happening in the region: "the normalization of ties between Israel and Arab countries."

"It is one of the tenets of what Israel has been trying to achieve since its inception 71 years ago," Katz said. "Israel has done that successfully with the Egyptians and Jordanians, and we know there are a lot of behind-the-scenes relationships with countries in the Gulf."

"This is just another example of how ultimately Israel can create these ties and get along with Arab and Muslim countries. That's a positive global development."

Read more: Israel and Saudi Arabia: New best friends in the Middle East?

Challenges on the horizon

But opposition to such diplomatic efforts remains, especially among Palestinians. Veteran Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat said the meeting between Netanyahu and al-Burhan was a "stab in the back of the Palestinian nation and a deviation from the Arab consensus."

In Sudan, the Forces of Freedom and Change — an alliance of civil society groups in Sudan responsible for appointing the civilian side of the transitional government — has also produced some of the most vocal critics to the idea of rapprochement.

Protesters hold placards during a protest against meeting of Sudan's Sovereign Council Head Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu in Uganda
Sudanese protesters have criticized the meeting between the country's leader and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuImage: picture-alliance/AA/M. Hajaj

"Israel is secretly working to tear down Sudan," said Al-Tayeb Al-Abbas, a leader in the Forces of Freedom and Change who heads the Sudan Bar Association. "It's not allowing stability to take hold. It had a role in all the wars in Sudan, including in Darfur, Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile."

"It even had a leading role in the secession of South Sudan," he told DW, apparently referring to historic links between Israeli entities and supporters of the newfound country's independence from Sudan.

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Given that kind of opposition, it is clear that the diplomatic thaw faces an all but certain future. "Going forward, the challenge will be in ensuring the Khartoum government follows through, and that the rapprochement is not undermined by more extremist elements there," said Eugene Kontorovich, director of International Law in the Middle East Center at George Mason University Scalia Law School.

"Khartoum was once the place from which the Arab world rejected Israel," Kontorovich told DW. "Now it's the place from which they reject rejectionism."

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