People may still recall the huge crowds receiving late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Khartoum, Sudan, in wake of the earthquake that rocked the very foundations of the Middle East and still: the 1967 Six-Day War. At that time, the Sudanese chanted with much defiance the famous “Three No’s”: No to Israel; No to recognition and No for negotiations. Last week, the “three No’s” became history. In Entebbe, Uganda, Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, chairman of the Sovereign Council of Sudan, held a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, the first ever between two sitting officials from the two countries in public. The meeting was seemingly facilitated by Uganda’s long-serving President Yoweri Museveni who said the same day he would consider opening an embassy in Jerusalem, the supposed capital of Israel.
The Netanyahu-Al-Burhan meeting has left many puzzled, even within the interim Sudanese government that issued a statement, following the meeting, that it knew nothing about the encounter except through the media. In reality, the Sudanese government did not object the meeting in itself, but maybe as the spokesman of the government suggested, the step should have been taken by the interim government where foreign policy falls within its competencies in accordance with the provisions of the Constitutional Declaration issued in August 2019.
Historically speaking, Sudanese-Israeli relations do not start with the Netanyahu-Al-Burhan meeting, though Al-Burhan is the first Sudanese official to meet in public with a sitting Israeli official. As early as the 1980s, former Sudanese president Gaafar Numeiri held talks with then Israeli defence minister Ariel Sharon on using Sudan as a gateway for the smuggling of thousands of Falasha Jews from Ethiopia into Israel via Operation Moses. The mission was a success and thousands of Ethiopian Jews were transferred through Sudan into Israel.
Moreover, the Islamist government of Omar Al-Bashir had openly discussed normalisation with Israel. In 2016, the foreign minister of the ousted Sudanese regime, Ibrahim Ghandor, said his nation would consider the step, in return for removing Sudan’s name from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Just before the ouster of Al-Bashir, Investment Minister Mubarak Al-Fadil, now the chairman of the Sudan Umma Party, said the Sudanese people did not have any problem normalising relations with Israel.
Al-Fadil recently commended the Netanyahu-Al-Burhan meeting, saying his country would benefit from Israeli agricultural technology among other things. Furthermore, other commentaries have suggested the location of the would-be Israeli Embassy in Sudan: Omdurman, the most populous Sudanese city, should the two countries fully normalise ties.
Prior to his meeting with Netanyahu, Al-Burhan uttered some vague statements that are now seen as a lead-up to his meeting. He said the motivation behind Sudan’s foreign relations would be serving the higher interests of the nation and that the country would knock on all doors to end the status quo of isolation imposed on Sudan under Al-Bashir.
Despite the success of Sudanese protesters in attaining the primary goal, namely the ouster of Al-Bashir, the eye of the storm has not been given due attention; namely, the alarming economic situation. Sudan’s external debt has reached an all-time high, standing at $60 billion, some 166 per cent higher than the country’s GDP, while unemployment rate hit a high record of more than 32 per cent. Not to mention that the Sudanese pound has hit a record low against the US dollar.
Above all, as the US listed Sudan on its terror list, serious damage has been sustained first to Sudan’s reputation in international forums, as a country associated with terror groups such as Al-Qaeda, and second, and most importantly, to the Sudanese economy that has been blocked any means of international finance and trade. These two factors may have been the main reason why Al-Burhan knocked on Israeli doors, surely with US blessings, as a means to salvage his nation before it is too late.
The 60-year-old general, who played a decisive role in support of furious protesters, allowing them to camp near the military premises during the revolution, may be showing promise for a greater part in Sudan’s political future after the end of the transitional period. He may also have wanted to contrast the standstill policy of incumbent Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok who, in six months in power, avoids controversy when it comes to urgent foreign policy issues.
Hamdok has not so far managed to solicit urgently needed funding or secure loans from international monetary institutions. His repeated calls on Washington DC to remove Sudan’s name from the terrorist list fell on deaf ears.
The unyielding support of the Sudanese military for Al-Burhan has been quickly translated on the ground, entailing a procedure Israel has long been dying for. Hours after the meeting, Sudan put into practice “the sooner the better” dictum on flights to and from Israel including use Sudan’s airspace, a cost-effective gift for Israeli commercial flights to and from South America.
It is crystal clear that the US invitation for Al-Burhan to visit Washington DC was a mouth-watering reward paid in advance for the meeting that took place the next day after a phone call between Al-Burhan and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The access to the White House is the greatest of Sudan’s gains out of the meeting. This is like open sesame for the nation that has sustained huge losses over decades under harsh US sanctions. Surely, the much-awaited removal of Sudan’s name from the US list of State Sponsors of Terrorism is now a matter of time. The exchange of ambassadors between the United States and Sudan after 23 years of diplomatic impasse would give a kiss of life to the ailing Sudanese economy, because American companies are expected to flock with investment once their country engages with Sudan.
Though a game-changer in a region whose destination no one can tell for sure, the Netanyahu-Al-Burhan meeting in Entebbe may serve as a win-win for both parties. Netanyahu, who has been officially indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, is racing against time to regain the trust of Israeli voters ahead of 2 March elections. Under Netanyahu’s rule, Israel is experiencing its most golden moments ever: US recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights; the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem after considering the Holy City as the undivided capital of Israel and lately, Trump’s Peace to Prosperity Plan which favours Israel by far compared to the Palestinians, and the Arabs at large. Now, breaking the ice with Sudan is another foreign policy achievement Netanyahu can boast to Israeli voters.
For Al-Burhan, whether his meeting with the Israeli premier was a unilateral decision or a pre-arranged one with the Hamdok government, he has taken the lead in placing himself as the strongman who can be counted on, by Western and Arab circles alike, when it comes to taking big decisions. Good outcomes of his sitting with Netanyahu would consolidate his image among different stripes of the Sudanese people, especially those segments of thinkers and people that hold the view that it is time for Sudan to depart from old policies and jump on another bandwagon, embracing pragmatism, like most Arab and African nations have done.
The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.