Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets in Khartoum with General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, leader of Sudan’s transitional government, Feb. 2, 2023. Source: Twitter/Sudan Transitional Sovereign Council.
by Andrew Jose
(JNS) — Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen met with General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, on Feb. 2 during what Israel’s foreign ministry hailed as a “historic diplomatic visit” to Khartoum.
The parties finalized the text of a normalization agreement Sudan would sign with Israel in Washington once Sudan’s government completes its expected transition from military to civilian rule.
The document finalized on Feb. 2 follows up on an October 2020 agreement by Sudan to normalize ties with Israel in exchange for the United States removing the African country from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
In January 2021, Khartoum announced that its then-Minister of Justice Nasredreen Abdulbari had signed onto the Abraham Accords during a visit by then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, joining Bahrain, the UAE and Morocco.
However, unlike the other Abraham Accords signatories, Sudan had previously fought against Israel in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and the 1967 Six-Day War. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, however, Morocco supported the Arab coalition by sending an expeditionary force of 5,500 men to the Golan and Sinai.
Sudan’s capital also hosted the Arab League’s 1968 Khartoum Conference, where the organization’s members adopted the Khartoum Resolution, wherein they agreed to the ‘Three No’s”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel.
The U.S. State Department designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 for its support of the terrorist outfits Abu Nidal Organization, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Hezbollah — organizations that targeted Israel — and al-Qaida. The U.S. government, however, rescinded the designation in December 2020 following Sudan’s preliminary normalization agreement with Israel and its payment of $335 million in compensation to the victims of the 2000 USS Cole attack and the 1998 East African Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
By signing the agreement finalized last week, Sudan is expected to be the sixth Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel, according to Israel’s foreign ministry, after Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.
A major obstacle hindering the agreement’s realization is Sudan’s lack of a civilian government, said Nimrod Goren, senior fellow for Israeli affairs at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “Unless there is a civilian government, finalizing such a deal with Israel would be impossible,” he said.
Although the U.S. consented to Cohen’s meeting with al-Burhan, Washington’s emphasis on the importance of a transition to civilian government in Khartoum means that any further progress on normalization is contingent on the successful transition from military to civilian rule takes place, Goren told JNS.
In October 2021, a year after Sudan agreed to normalize ties with Israel, the country’s military, led by al-Burhan, seized power from the transitional government led by then-Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in a coup the United States and the European Union condemned.
Before the coup, the Sudanese transitional government’s military component, headed by al-Burhan, was “willing to move forward towards normalization with Israel.” In contrast, its civilian component was reluctant to do so, despite not being willing to completely “roll back” normalization out of worries that it could damage ties with the U.S., said former Israeli diplomat Joshua Krasna, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Middle East program.
Though the emergence of military rule following the coup meant that those “supportive of normalization” were in power — “theoretically” presenting Israel an opportunity for expedited normalization — the U.S.’s position that the coup was “illegitimate” hitherto dissuaded Israel from making substantial moves towards that end, out of concerns that doing so could appear to be “legitimizing” an internationally unrecognized military government, Krasna told JNS.
Nonetheless, engagement between the two countries persisted with reports of secret meetings by Israeli diplomats with military officials and al-Burhan claiming that intel-sharing with Israel has led to the apprehension of terrorists.
The ‘Three Yeses’
Following his meeting with al-Burhan, Cohen said the finalization of the future normalization agreement’s text marked the “building” of a “new reality” with the Sudanese where the “‘Three Nos’ will become the ‘Three Yeses’: yes to negotiations between Israel and Sudan, yes to recognition of Israel and yes to peace between the states and between the peoples.”
Cohen’s meeting with al-Burhan — though it was a well-publicized encounter between high-level officials — is not a gamechanger heralding a broad regional departure from the 2002 Arab Peace initiative, which would condition normalization with Israel on Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 lines, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital, Goren said.
“Sudan already made moves towards normalization with Israel two years ago, though it has encountered several obstacles. Since then, there has been limited progress beyond the visible. In terms of a formal agreement, we don’t have one now,” he explained, adding that the significance of the meeting has been “overplayed” for “political reasons.”
Krasna joined Goren in cautioning against overstating the meeting’s significance.
“With the UAE and Bahrain, the parties talked about their willingness to normalize with Israel, and within a few months, it was over,” Krasna said. But, the normalization process with Sudan has served Israeli politicians seeking to position themselves as “diplomatic geniuses” by being a “gift that keeps on giving,” furnishing them with a “source of headlines” and “diplomatic activity,” he continued.
Goren said that normalization with Saudi Arabia would be an effective litmus test in determining if there is a regional departure from the policy of making normalization with Israel contingent on the realization of a two-state solution.
“[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has long expressed intentions to normalize with the Saudis, but the Saudis have time and again stressed the linkage between progress towards the two-state solution and normalization with Israel,” he said.
While the UAE and Bahrain had developed economies that were “compatible” with Israel’s, facilitating trade and investments in high-tech and energy, Sudan is “underdeveloped,” making it “needing more from Israel than what it can offer Israel,” said Krasna.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry’s news release on the meeting mentioned that Cohen presented to “his hosts an MFA aid program for Sudan, which will focus on projects and capacity building in the fields of humanitarian aid, water purification and public medicine.” However, the news release did not mention reciprocal investments or contributions Sudan offered Israel.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, Sudan is not a “powerhouse” among Arab countries, limiting the benefits a relationship with Khartoum could bring Israel, Goren explained. This, according to him, makes relations between the two countries more likely to be “top-down” and between governments on a “strategic level,” with limited potential for the relationship to extend to people-to-people economic ties in the near term.
However, both Goren and Krasna highlighted that the Netanyahu government stands to benefit from normalization with Sudan in that establishing ties with the country can help facilitate the deportation of Sudanese migrants and asylum seekers in Israel back to Sudan. Likewise, publicized overtures towards neighboring countries could also help the incumbent government distract attention from troubling issues at home, such as the ongoing protests against judicial reforms promoted by the prime minister and his associates, said Goren.
“Encouraging a closer relationship between Israel and Sudan is in the best interests of the United States, whether it is in fighting the terrorism threat or preventing Chinese encroachment in East Africa,” said Victoria Coates, a senior research fellow for international affairs and national security at the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.
Although the U.S. stands to benefit from Sudan-Israel normalization, it should push towards getting a “good deal” rather than a “quick deal,” Coates, a former deputy national security adviser for Middle East and North African affairs under President Donald Trump said, adding that one way the Trump administration erred in 2020 was in wanting a quick deal over a “good deal.”
This resulted in an arrangement that was not “durable,” she told JNS, adding that Sudan’s government remains in a “precarious situation” that needs to be addressed.
The Biden administration could play a critical mediating role in building ties between the countries by having senior officials attend bilateral meetings between Israel and Sudan and appointing competent diplomats to manage Horn of Africa and East Africa affairs, Coates said.
The stronger the support leaders in the region perceive from the United States in normalizing ties with Israel, the “bolder they become” in making overtures towards the Jewish state, she said.