Speculations about the normalisation of relations between Sudan and Israel have this week moved from debating the concept to guessing the date.
“It is a matter of time, clearly; I think that the deal is done and that the announcement will be made when the US Congress has finalised all the procedures required to remove the name of Sudan off the list of countries supporting terrorism,” said Amany ElTawil, a prominent expert in Sudanese affairs.
ElTawil reminded that the Sudanese have “some unfortunate experiences of broken promises in international relations, so they will be cautious.”
However, she added, “this time it is too difficult to expect a setback in the deal now that both the US president and the US secretary of state have announced the intention of Washington to remove the name of Sudan from the list of countries supporting terrorism.”
Earlier this week, US President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter that he had decided to remove Sudan’s name from the list of countries supporting terrorism.
Later in the week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Washington is working closely with the Sudanese authorities on the matter and is hoping that Khartoum will eventually move to strike a normalisation agreement with Israel. He made no direct link between the two steps, however.
Sudanese officials said that the interim government in Khartoum is also not connecting one step to the other. However, they did not deny accounts suggesting that normalisation is on the horizon, or that it is part of a larger UAE-sponsored deal to remove the name of Sudan from the list of states supporting terrorism.
Sudan has agreed to pay compensation to the families of 17 US sailors who lost their lives in an attack on the USS Cole in 2000.
However, once its name is removed from the terror list, it will be able to receive considerable aid, to get a loan from the IMF and to start a negotiation process to scrap some of the huge debts that had accumulated during the three-decade rule of its ousted dictator, Omar Al-Bashir.
“Sudan needs the money to finance the development plans that were agreed upon in the Juba peace deal it signed with Sudanese opposition and [rebel] groups,” ElTawil said.
Earlier this month in Juba, the interim Sudanese government, led by Abdalla Hamdok, signed a peace deal with the opposition. All major groups were included, apart from two militant rebel movements, the Sudan Liberation Army Movement, led by AbdelWahed Nour, and the Sudan Liberation Popular Movement, led by Mohamed ElHelw.
The debate on normalisation with Israel has been unfolding in Sudan for several weeks; a couple of months ago, it cost the foreign ministry spokesman his job, when he announced a decision by Khartoum to move along the path to normalisation.
“I think, given that there is no geographic proximity, and given the overall positions of the Sudanese people, that the normalisation deal in the case of Sudan will be essentially managed at the official rather than the popular level,” ElTawil argued.
However, she added, “it is only expected that, for its part, Israel will do all it can to secure a considerable presence in Sudan through civil society groups that will try to work on the ground to provide relief and aid in some of the most challenged parts of Sudan.”
“This is a typical style for Israel when it comes to its presence in countries that suffer the results of long conflicts,” she explained.
The anticipated normalisation deal, which according to the Israeli media was discussed on Wednesday evening during a short visit by a high-ranking Israeli delegation to Khartoum, was originally speculated to take place before US election on 3 November, in order to boost incumbent Trump in his increasingly difficult race against Democratic rival Joe Biden.
For Sudan, ElTawil argued, the deal is partially political and not exclusively economic. “It is true that there are some in the Sudanese ruling quarters who are keen to obtain funds for many development projects, but it is also true that there are some who wish to have a comprehensive political deal that will exempt all political and military leaders who were part of the Bashir regime from being pursued with charges by the International Criminal Court,” she argued.
Last week, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda was in Khartoum to discuss the possible trial of Al-Bashir and other former regime figures. Both the head and the deputy of the interim Sudanese Sovereign Council were part of the wider Al-Bashir circle that has been accused of crimes in the Darfur region.
“The concern on the faces of some of the Sudanese officials during the meeting with [Bensouda] could not have been missed, and I think that Sudan wants to move on -- not just beyond the US list but also beyond the ICC issue,” she said.
Whatever the final deal that will lead to normalisation between Sudan and Israel, ElTawil argued, Israel will soon find itself a considerable niche on Egypt’s southern border.
She argued that, despite the established peaceful relations between Egypt and Israel, this Israeli presence in Sudan is not something that Cairo can afford to take lightly.
Israel, she added, no matter its good diplomatic relations with Egypt, will always want to find itself an advantageous spot in one of Egypt’s most significant neighbours. And Sudan is not just a country that shares considerable borders with Egypt; it is also a country with which it shares the River Nile.
“So in addition to its very strong relations with Ethiopia [the upstream country in which the source of the Blue Nile is located] and its strong presence in Kenya and Uganda [two other Nile Basin states], Israel is now going to make itself a place in Sudan; this is not something that can at all be taken lightly in Cairo,” she said.
Israel, ElTawil argued, could easily work on creating situations of tension over water-sharing in the Nile Basin. “We have already seen the situation with GERD, which Ethiopia built and started filling without an agreement with Egypt [and Sudan, both downstream countries],” she said.
With Israel expanding its presence in the Nile Basin countries, ElTawil suggested that GERD might not be the last of the dams that Egypt has to worry about.
Israel has long been building its relations with countries in East Africa, as well as elsewhere on the continent, she believes, and has been using the argument that sub-Saharan Africans have been victimised by Arabs in the north of the continent like the Jews were victimized by non-Jewish Europeans. “This is very alarming because this kind of argument is only designed to create and ferment sensitivities,” she said.
ElTawil added that she is hoping that both Egypt and Sudan will be able to spare their bilateral relationship from any external influences, and that they will both work to consolidate cooperation among the Nile Basin countries, away from any possible Israeli or other states' influence.
In addition, she expressed concerns that, away from the financial and legal benefits that Sudan may be getting from the US and the international community as part of the larger normalisation package, when it comes to the bilateral dealings, “it is Israel rather than Sudan that is set to benefit a great deal, simply because Israel has a much better understanding of Sudanese society and its ethnic groups and is at an advantage over Sudan in terms of economic and trade relations, including those with African states.”
It is therefore essential for Egypt now more than any other time, ElTawil argued, that Egypt and Sudan work together on coordinating strategic interests, “not just at the official level but also at the level of civil society.” “There is so much to be done, and we should be forthcoming,” she said.
It would be very unfortunate, ElTawil concluded, if it was Israel rather than Egypt that was to work closely with Sudan on its development plans.