Normalisation with Israel would betray Sudan's refugees
The rollercoaster that is Sudan-Israel relations has turned and twisted at such break-neck speed that even foreign affairs ministry officials in Khartoum have had a hard time keeping track of the relationship which goes back more than 50 years.
Haydar Sadiq, Sudan's foreign ministry spokesman, was recently fired for simply stating the barely-concealed fact that his country was considering normalising ties with Israel. The Foreign Affairs Ministry claimed they were "astonished" by Sadiq's comments - even though Sudan has openly flirted with Israel in the last decade – even under Omar al-Bashir's regime.
For Sudan, the normalisation saga is guided by self-preservation. Khartoum simply wants to be removed from the United States' list of states that sponsor terrorism. Omar al-Bashir's government was placed on that list in 1993, and the designation crippled an already fragile Sudanese economy.
Despite the lifting of some US economic sanctions in 2017, international banks are reluctant to do business with financial institutions in the country and there is scant foreign investment. Sudan remains on the terrorism list, and the designation means that the country is still blocked from accessing financial aid from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. To make matters worse, Khartoum lost almost two-thirds of its oil reserves after South Sudan gained independence in 2011.
The joint military-civilian transitional council, that seized power after Bashir was deposed last year, has inherited a decimated economy and is desperate for the Trump administration to remove Sudan from the terror list. Years of Sudanese appeasement and co-operation with Washington have failed.
Instead, the road to Washington's heart runs through Tel Aviv. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, conditioned the removal of Sudan from its terror list on normalization of diplomatic ties with Israel.
|Israel has specified that any normalisation deal with Sudan would include a mechanism for the return of Sudanese migrants|
Israel's priorities: Legitimacy and deporting migrants
Israel, in turn, desperately needs to improve its international reputation, and has been forced to look beyond its traditional western allies for political and diplomatic legitimisation of its military occupation under which millions of Palestinians live.
Netanyahu's regime has openly courted African nations in an effort to build new alliances, fight off a global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, and win support at the United Nations (UN). After the UAE formally normalised relations after years of covert relations, Tel Aviv is wooing another Sunni Arab nation – and an African one to boot.
There is also an added attraction for Israel in Sudan: While the country is hardly an economic or political powerhouse, Khartoum does possess the power to make one of Israel's domestic problems go away – literally. Throughout the last decade, tens of thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese fleeing dictatorship, torture, and likely death have sought asylum in Israel.
Israel refuses to grant them asylum, and over the years has jailed, deported or paid refugees to leave for other countries – all in an attempt to rid the country of what its right-wing politicians have termed a "cancer".
Israel has specified that any normalisation deal with Sudan would include a mechanism for the return of Sudanese migrants.
If this happens, normalising Israeli-Sudanese relations would not only betray millions of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories but also more than 6000 Sudanese refugees living on the other side of the Green Line.
In February, Netanyahu secretly made advances to General Abdul al-Fattah Burhan in Uganda. Burhan is the military head of Sudan's transitional council. He is also alleged to have recruited the Janjaweed militias in Darfur and directly participated in the genocidal crimes carried out against the people of that province. Ironically, Netanyahu was speaking to the same generals who carried out the genocide and ethnic cleansing from which many Sudanese asylum seekers had fled to Israel.
If relations are normalised between Israel and Sudan, Sudanese asylum-seekers in Israel would be forced to return to their home country – to be led by a military junta where massacres and killings are ongoing. Israel is nothing if not consistent in its support for ethnic cleansing and war-crimes - whether against Sudanese or Palestinians.
|Hamdok's U-turn is a sign of the Sudanese leadership's concerns about domestic reactions to the establishment of relations with Israel|
It is, however, revealing that despite significant American and Israeli pressure and signs from Burhan that it was considering to do so, Sudan has – so far - not normalised relations with Israel. Sudan's civilian leader, Abdalla Hamdok, told Pompeo that the interim government does not have a mandate to decide on normalisation with Israel.
Hamdok's U-turn is a sign of the Sudanese leadership's concerns about domestic reactions to the establishment of relations with Israel. It also reveals the tension between the military and civilian wings of the government, and the uncertainty over who is in charge of international relations.
Read more: Despite US pressure, Sudan's cost-benefit analysis puts normalising ties with Israel on hold, for now
Haydar Sadiq's "erroneous" statement about Sudan's intention to normalise relations with Israel was an attempt to test the waters - both locally and regionally – on reactions to such a move. The protests that were staged soon after Burhan's meeting with Netanyahu indicate that Sudan's leaders are not going to have an easy path to normalisation with Palestine's occupiers.
It also reveals the wide chasm between the rulers and the ruled in Sudan. "This is another reminder of the limits of Israeli and American leverage in the region," says Yotam Gidron, whose book Israel in Africa, examines Israel's deeper relationships with African countries.
For the time being at least, Sudan has not formally normalised relations. It has, however, granted Israel a significant request: to allow Israeli planes to fly over Sudan's airspace.
Its decision on when to normalise relations with Israel will also be aligned with Saudi Arabia, UAE and other Gulf states.
Indeed, as more Gulf countries normalise relations with Israel, Sudan is likely to be emboldened to upgrade ties with Israel as a means of improving its relationship with Washington. In the process it will barter Palestinian rights for regional power and western approval.
For over half a century, Sudan has clung on to its position as the "ground zero" of the Arab boycott of Israel. In 1967, the Arab League summit in Khartoum declared: No to peace with Israel, no to recognition of Israel and no to negotiations with Israel. In 2012, Omar al-Bashir once referred to Israel as the "Zionist enemy that will remain the enemy". Seven years later, Bashir admitted that he had dallied with the idea of normalising relations with Israel in order to ensure stability in his country. There are no permanent enemies or friends in politics - only permanent interests.
The Sudan-Israel relationship is difficult to predict given that the liaison is heavily cloaked in secrecy and double-speak. The mixed messages coming from Khartoum about the normalisation of Sudanese relations with Israel is simply delaying the inevitable. This is just one more sordid chapter in the convoluted, double-dealing history between the two countries.
Suraya Dadoo is a South African writer based in Johannesburg.
Follow her on Twitter: @Suraya_Dadoo
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.