Israel and Sudan to normalise ties

What happened: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met yesterday with Sudanese leader Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al Burhan, chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, during a visit to Uganda. Both leaders said they would begin “cooperation leading to normalisation of relations.”

  • The meeting was facilitated by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who Netanyahu also met. Discussions centred on possible direct flights between Israel and Uganda as well as the opening of an embassy in Jerusalem. Museveni would only commit to “studying” the issue.
  • Netanyahu highlighted the conversation he had with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sudan’s behalf, saying “Sudan is headed in a new positive direction” while adding that al-Burhan was keen to modernise his country and end its isolation.
  • Reports in the Israeli media speculated that the first step towards normalisation of bilateral relations would be allowing Israeli commercial airliners to fly over Sudan, dramatically reducing flight times to Latin America.
  • Kan Radio, citing a senior Sudanese military official, reported that the Netanyahu-al-Burhan meeting was facilitated by the United Arab Emirates, with the knowledge of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Sudan, according to the report, wants the US to remove it from the list of states sponsoring terrorism.
  • Channel 13 reported yesterday that Israel and Morocco have been in secret talks about normalising their relations. As part of a trilateral deal involving the US, the Trump Administration could recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over occupied Western Sahara in return for steps towards normalising relations with Israel.

Context: Popular demonstrations began in Sudan in December 2018 due to deteriorating economic conditions and led to the ousting of President Omar al-Bashir. Over the past year an uneasy collective council – currently called the Sovereignty Council of Sudan – has led the country, with al-Burhan at the head.

  • Sudan under the Bashir regime was an international pariah due to its support for terrorist groups and alleged genocide in Darfur. It was also known as a transit point for Iranian arms to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israel allegedly bombed a weapons convoy inside Sudan in 2009, a weapons factory in 2012, and a munitions warehouse in 2014.
  • In recent years Sudan has broken from the Iranian-led “resistance” axis, pivoting towards Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and other moderate Arab states. In the wake of the revolution last year, Gulf states reportedly provided Sudan with at least $1.5 billion in financial aid.
  • The transition away from the Bashir regime has been turbulent, with ongoing demonstrations and bloody crackdowns. The Sudanese military still dominates the country in an uneasy alliance with civilian political groups.

Looking ahead: The meeting between Netanyahu and al-Burhan comes less than a month before Israel’s election on 2 March. The historic meeting will likely burnish Netanyahu’s credentials as a global statesman, following the Israeli premier’s visits last week to Washington and Moscow. It remains to be seen what tangible steps Israel and Sudan take towards normalisation, and whether Uganda – as long promised – establishes an embassy in Jerusalem.

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