“A new ‘Khartoum Declaration’ allowing for the normalization of ties is a new chapter in the regions’ history
The normalization of Sudanese-Israeli ties on October 23 is the latest chapter in an often complex and nuanced relationship between the two states. Earlier this year a historic meeting in February between the two countries leaders in Uganda set the stage. At that meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan shook hands and pledged to normalize relations.
The Sudan deal has received less media attention than the signing of other Abraham Accords’ branches between Israel and Arab League states. This is unfortunate as the agreement is of both historical and geopolitical significance. Sudan is perhaps the second most populous state in the Arab world. Its soldiers fought in many wars against Israel over the decades, and the country was once firmly aligned against Israel and member of the Iranian camp.
“The deal represents an important shift in the geopolitics of the region, though my understanding is the impetus for the deal came from Sudanese leaders who had been living in the Gulf states,” said Aynur Bashirova, an expert on Israeli foreign policy in Brussels.
The deal was part of tripartite agreement to normalize ties between the United States and Sudan. That agreement will include removing Sudan from the list of State Sponsor of terrorism – an outdated status that prevented the country from receiving U.S. foreign assistance and investments.
Building on that a spending bill passed this past week included some $700 million in assistance and a further $230 million in debt relief for a country where the inflation rate raced over 200% in September. Ongoing litigation against Sudan in U.S. courts linked to 9/11 attacks will be allowed to proceed. However, Sudan’s sovereign immunity will be restored in relation to future legal proceedings. Behind closed doors, Israel lobbied the United States on Sudan’s behalf for just such a deal. Conversely, the United Arab Emirates lobbied the Sudanese government on behalf of Israel during that same period.
“The hostile history between the two states is ironic given that during the early years of Israeli history there was much expectation that Sudan and other Horn of Africa countries could become partners of Israel,” said Bashirova.
Instead, the countries quickly became enemies. In 1948, Sudanese Colonel Harold Saleh Al-Malik led 250 World War II veterans to Egypt. After parading together in Cairo, they were largely dispersed among other Egyptian units in the hopes that in part due to their experience, they could act as mentors. Some 43 Sudanese were killed in the conflict which would build decades of hostility between the two states. Among the most notable Sudanese soldiers involved in the conflict was Said Taha Bey. The Brigadier General earned the grudging respect of his adversaries after commanding surrounded Egyptian forces in the defense of the so-called Fallujah Pocket. The future Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser took part in the vicious battle.
Sudan gained its independence on January 1, 1956, and supported the Arab League’s hostility toward Israel though with some degree of nuance. Sudan deployed military forces to Egypt in a show of support during the Suez Crisis. However, it refused to break ties with France and the United Kingdom during the 1956 Suez Crisis. Such mixed reactions were also seen within Sudan as well.
When a Jewish woman won the first-ever Miss Sudan beauty competition in 1956, she was soon stripped of the title after her faith was discovered. Yet, ironically after the Suez Crisis, a few Jewish families fled Egypt for Sudan.
It was during this turbulent period that the Ummah Party, an Islamist movement in Sudan, conducted secret talks with Israeli counterparts between 1954 and 1956. Both groups shared concerns about the growing influence of Nasser’s Arab nationalist ideology in the region.
Such clandestine links soon became untenable. Anti-Semitic content in local press increased in the 1960s as Sudanese leaders sought to channel the frustrations of the Sudanese masses against Israel. Officially, the country’s last Jews left the country in the 1970s – though a handful of Jews remain in the country according to multiple Sudanese sources who spoke to the author.
“Sudanese people are hospitable to foreigners, and we had Jews who lived in Sudan and were born in Sudan. We still have [a Sudanese] Jewish family that is very much accepted within society, so we look forward to prosperous relations with Israel,” said Mubarak Al-Fadil Al-Mahdi who heads the Ummah Party.
Sudanese forces arrived too late to play a large role during the June 1967 “Six Days War” in Egypt. Instead, Sudanese forces fought in the “War of Attrition” waged along the Suez Canal between 1967 and 1970. Sudan’s deployment had grown to a 3,500 strong infantry brigade by the early 1970s. A New York Times assessment of those troops noted: “Though short of field artillery and antiaircraft guns, the Sudanese troops are considered excellent.” The Egyptian Air Force was also able to use Sudan as a safe staging area far from Israel during much of this period. By 1965, in order to distract Sudan and Egypt, Israel began funding the colorfully named Anya-Nya or “Venom Viper” rebels in the South. Though that conflict ended in 1972, this struggle was a dry run for a second struggle. This second insurgency, which began in 1983 would lead eventually to the independence of South Sudan.
Sudan’s close relationship with Egypt allowed the country to quickly accept the outcome of the Camp David Accords. During the 1980s, Sudan played a critical role in helping thousands of Ethiopian Jews escape to Israel – events heavily fictionalized in the Netflix film The Red Sea Diving Resort released last year. The film’s version has been criticized for its extreme version of the “white saviour complex” and its relative lack of humanized African and Arab characters. In truth, Sudanese authorities knew full well of the operation and the threat posed by Ethiopia’s brutal communist regime which would be responsible for the death of over 1 million during its time in power.
The 1989 revolution, the first Islamist revolution in the Sunni world ushered in a new dark age in Israeli-Sudanese relations. In the early 1990s, Sudan, under the influence of Islamist leader and former Muslim Brotherhood member Hassan Al-Turabi aligned itself increasingly with Iran.
Al-Turabi and Sudanese leaders welcomed and hosted the world’s most famous terrorists, including Carlos the Jackal and Osama Bin Ladin. Sudan was added to the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list in 1993. It is worth noting that sanctions approved by then-President Bill Clinton didn’t wholly prevent trade with Sudan. An exemption was made for Arabic gum, a commodity of which Sudan has historically been the principal producer. Though Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir ousted Hassan Al Turabi from power in 2000, there was little change in Sudanese foreign policy.
In 2009 and again in 2012, Sudan accused the Israeli Air Force of attacking Sudanese forces and terrorists. The latter was the same year that two Iranian warships made a joint port visit to Port Sudan. In 2014, with international oil prices dropping and Sudan having lost half its territory with the South’s secession, Bashir abruptly closed down Iranian cultural centers in the country.
In response to this sudden change and other political shifts, Israel began advocating behind the scenes with Western governments to bring the country in from the cold and build relations with Sudan. In the early 2000s, the United States had leveraged the possibility of removing Sudan’s status as a state sponsor of terrorism in response for Sudanese compliance in the plan for South Sudanese independence.
In January 2016, the Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour floated the idea that “The issue of normalizing relations with Israel can be examined” in exchange for the removal of U.S. sanctions in a media statement.
President Obama removed some of the sanctions against the country in the final days of his presidency – a move that angered some Jewish groups.
Incoming President Donald Trump was foreign to some Sudanese diplomats but, his close ties to Israel were seen as a bonus. The then Sudanese ambassador to the United States at the time told the author that he fully expected Trump to continue Obama’s policies of outreach toward Sudan. By now, many officials in the U.S. intelligence community and elsewhere had been working closely with their Sudanese counterparts on counter-terrorism issues in a clandestine fashion for years.
Over the years behind the scenes, negotiations and informal discussions continued and were accelerated by the toppling of President Bashir in a popular uprising in 2019.
Sudan’s political process means that the new agreement with Israel will have to be approved by the yet-to-be formed legislative council. Indeed, the onus now is on supporters of deal to give it deeper roots in Sudanese society. Such deals have collapsed before. Indeed, it is worth noting an Israel-Lebanon peace agreement signed in 1983 collapsed less than a year later. In 1999, Mauritania became the third member of the Arab League to recognize Israel yet that relationship was frozen just a decade later.
Much of Sudan’s political class have spoken out in support of the deal either in supporting broader regional peace or in the country’s economic interests. For its part, Israel has donated $5 million in wheat food aid to Sudan since the signing of the deal.
“I believe there could be a strong partnership between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan to employ Israeli technology in Sudan to increase production per acre in Sudan and to utilize the vast arable land in Sudan,” said Mubarak Al-Fadil Al-Mahdi, an economist and prominent Sudanese politician.
Al Mahdi told the Investigative Journal that of the 200 million acres of potentially arable land in Sudan, only 45 million acres are being utilized.
Within the Sudanese context, the main opposition to the deal comes from leftists and Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Such groups prefer Sudan’s traditional hostility toward Israel in the name of solidarity with the Palestinians.
Some supporters of the deal believe Israel makes a reliable partner against both Iran and were concerned by the countries tilt toward the Sunni Islamist bloc lead by Qatar and Turkey.
Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was furious that he was kept in the dark about the arrangement and has argued that Sudan’s current traditional government did not have the mandate to take such a momentous step.
Yet, Sudan and Hamadok’s government has continued to make important geopolitical moves that will have a lasting impact ahead of the scheduled 2021 elections. Such initiatives include a peace agreement signed in Juba with Sudanese rebel groups and the government’s announcement in December 2020 that Port Sudan will soon host a Russian naval facility.
“My criticism is that these talks were hidden from the public,” said Meki El Megrehbi, a former Sudanese diplomat in Washington,
“There should have been delegations between the two countries and meetings at a neutral site such as U.K. and U.S. Had this gone on for a long time the wide benefits of Sudan re-joining the international community through the removal of sanctions. This would have helped ensure all parties were on the same level of understanding. Though that wasn’t possible, that is now the hard work we should engage in as a nation,” El Megrehbi added.