Khartoum is strengthening channels of communication with Tel Aviv in preparation for full normalisation, the Sudanese Foreign Ministry stated last week. The statement was made following a visit by Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen to Sudan on 2 February to meet with the chairman of the Sovereignty Council and other Sudanese officials.
Khartoum’s gradual move towards normalisation with Tel Aviv has aroused widespread anger in Sudan. A spate of statements issued by a broad swathe of Sudanese politicians, neighbourhood resistance committees and Sudanese and Arab activists stressed that no step by the Sovereignty Council towards normalisation with Isreal is “binding to the Sudanese people”.
“The ruling authority in Sudan is trying as hard as it can to obtain foreign support, even if from the devil. But it does not express the Sudanese people,” Al-Walid Ali, spokesman for the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), said. The resistance committees denounced the “normalisation deal” with Israel as “a humiliation,” adding, “it is entirely detached from the Sudanese people’s values and history in opposition to attempts to legitimise the [Israeli] occupation and its terrorist practices.”
In addition, 28 political parties, blocs and organisations signed a charter launching the Popular Forces for Resistance to Normalisation. Signatories include the Popular Congress Party, the Reform Now Movement, the Just Peace Forum Party, the Independent Youth Gathering and the Organisation of Sudanese Ulama.
Despite such considerable opposition, noticeable progress has been made towards normalisation. The rapprochement between Khartoum and Tel Aviv began around three years ago. The first significant landmark was the meeting between General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, chairman of the Sovereignty Council, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Entebbe, Uganda, in February 2020. Almost a year later, in January 2021, the minister of justice in the government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok signed the Abraham Accords with the visiting US treasury secretary. The document was largely symbolic and indicated Sudan’s intentions to move forward with normalisation. In April 2021, the government, deferring to pressure from the Sovereignty Council, passed an act to repeal a 1958 law calling for a boycott of Israel. The law prohibited all political, commercial and other forms of contact with the Zionist state, with violations punishable by up to ten years in prison, a fine and confiscation of assets.
If several years of legislation and official talks managed to break the freeze in relations between Khartoum and Tel Aviv, they did not achieve a breakthrough in Sudanese public opinion or popular perceptions of Israel. In fact, if anything, the public’s attitudes towards Israel have hardened in response to the practices of the Israeli occupation. With the recent killing of ten Palestinian civilians in Jenin by occupation forces, the racist anti-Palestinian statements by the Israeli Interior Minister Ben-Gvir, the Israeli settlers’ storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque and other acts of brutality and provocation, the outrage is mounting. As though to perpetuate the cycle of violence begets violence, Israel has intensified and broadened its assaults against Palestinians in retaliation against the recent suicide bomb attacks that have killed dozens of Israeli settlers.
In pursuing closer relations with Israel, authorities in Sudan hope to achieve a number of objectives. Above all, they understand that resuscitating and developing the crisis plaguing the Sudanese economy hinges to a great extent on improved relations with Israel which, they believe, has the international clout to help lift UN sanctions, release development assistance and promote foreign direct investment. They also believe that establishing relations with Israel will alleviate pressures from the US in certain areas of contention. Tel Aviv could help persuade Washington to put its weight behind lifting international sanctions, as well as to lift the sanctions the US itself has imposed on Khartoum and to revive American-Sudanese development, investment and trade partnerships.
During his recent visit to Israel in January, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that Sudan would soon be joining the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco in signing the Abraham Accords and that his government hopes to further expand the scope of normalisation between Israel and other countries of the region. The Sudanese authorities hope to take advantage of this desire in Washington. Closer to home, Khartoum believes that Israel could be of help in resolving problems with some regional powers. For example, Israel has considerable influence in Addis Ababa and could play a part in reducing tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia over border disputes.
Israel, for its part, has been pushing to advance its influence in Africa, and Sudan can serve as an important gateway to that end. Tehran has recently taken advantage of France’s withdrawal from a number of West African countries to expand its influence there. Tel Aviv perceives this as a threat to its interests and is intent on countering it. Normalisation with Arab and Islamic countries will further this end, and further breakthroughs could be made in expanding the scope of the process which, Israel believes, will reduce the intensity of criticism for Israel’s practices against the Palestinians and, perhaps, improve Israel’s image in the region.
Evidently, the Sudanese authorities, especially the Sovereignty Council, feel they can ride out the storm of popular anger if they proceed with signing the Abraham Accords. Certainly they must believe that pragmatic considerations must prevail against a backdrop of precarious domestic, regional and international circumstances and at a time when the Sudanese economy is going from bad to worse. It remains to be seen whether Khartoum will be able to leverage improved relations with Israel in its favour in its contests with Sudan’s regional and international adversaries.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly