What role does Israel play in Sudan’s coup?

What role does Israel play in Sudan’s coup?
6 min read
03 Nov, 2021
The Sudanese military has placed high hopes in growing relations with Israel as a means to cement their recent grab for power, writes Jihad Mashamoun.
People gather with their cars after performing Friday prayer to stage a demonstration in support of Palestinians, protest against Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip and the normalization deal with Israel in Khartoum, Sudan on 21 2021. [Getty]

Since the signing of the transition deal in July 2019 in Sudan, both Lt. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Lt. General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as "Hemedti") the commander of the Rapid Support Forces, understood that they needed international backing, namely the US, to rule Sudan. 

One of the major successes of the popular protests that erupted on 30 June 2019 was that it pressured the US to in turn force the Sudanese military to negotiate and accept a transition deal with the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), a coalition of civilian and rebel groups. 

Following this intervention by the US, the Sudanese military realized that to have any hope in ruling Sudan during the transitional or post-transition period, US-backing was crucial.

To achieve this goal, both Burhan and Hemedti reached out to Israel to lobby on their behalf with then-US president Donald Trump, who was motivated by transactional relationships as a basis for diplomatic affairs. 

"Following this intervention by the US, the Sudanese military realized that to have any hope in ruling Sudan during the transitional or post-transition period, US-backing was crucial"

The agenda was set in motion when Burhan met former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February 2020, with the intention to get Israeli support to lobby the US to lift Sudan from the US State Sponsor of Terrorism List (STTL). Sudan's placement on this list blocked its battered economy, which has a debt of US$ 60bn, from accessing new loans from the World Bank and IMF, and also discouraged international businesses from investing in the country.

The secrecy of the meeting at the time furthered tensions between the Sudanese military and their civilian counterparts in government led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and his cabinet, who saw the meeting as an entrenchment on their mandate regarding Sudan's foreign policy. 

After Burhan returned to Sudan, he explained that he bypassed Prime Minister Hamdok and the civilian cabinet in order to safeguard the country's security.

But ultimately, both General Burhan and General Hemedti rush towards removing Sudan’s name from the STTL was less motivated by Sudan’s economic well-being, and more by their personal desire to be granted immunity for their participation in the Darfur genocide in 2003 and any charges regarding their role in the violent emptying of a protest site on 3 June 2019.

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Moreover, Burhan is planning for a post-transition presidency that relies on the support of the Islamists, who previously formed the base of the toppled Bashir regime. These supporters, who amount to around 500,000 throughout Sudan, also dominate the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), its military-industrial complex such as the Defense Systems Industries, as well as the General Intelligence Service (GIS), and have their own business empires.

On his part, Hemedti has been using his Junaid conglomerate, headed by Abdel Rahman Dagalo, his brother and second-in-command within the RSF, to support his ambitions.

With his return to Khartoum, Burhan proceeded in furthering a working relationship with Israel in competition to his civilian counterparts and their allies in the FFC, who also considered using Israel's lobbying power in Washington to expedite the removal of Sudan from the STTL. 

The civilian bloc was interested in using Israel to lobby Washington due to the fact that the former Trump-led US administration did not have any policy regarding Sudan, and the country needed to use the agriculture sector to kick start economic growth and hoped for the prospect of using Israeli expertise on agriculture development.

This explains why most of the FFC parties released statements that supported a two state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than releasing a statement calling for Israel to give equal citizenship, social and political rights for all in historical Palestine.

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The process in removing Sudan from the STTL was further complicated by the Trump administration's demands that Sudan immediately normalise its relations with Israel as a first step. 

In response, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok explained to then-US secretary of state Mike Pompeo that he did not have the mandate to do so and the two matters - normalising with Israel and removal of Sudan from STTL -  should be done separately. Hamdok's response was buoyed by the fact that there was no popular approval in normalising ties with Israel.   

Nevertheless, the Trump administration continued to insist that Sudan normalise ties with Israel and added that it should pay compensation for an attack on the USS Cole in 2001.

In the end, Hamdok's government reached a settlement regarding the USS Cole and gave tactical approval to the signing of the Abraham Accords, and this middle-ground diplomatic compromise by Hamdok was a result of the worsening economic situation which many in Sudan suspect that Burhan and Hemedti may have encouraged or engineered to oust the transitional government.

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With the Trump administration giving Sudan the perception that Israel has a powerful influence in Washington, the Sudanese military seeks to dominate Sudan's relation with Israel, and now is using it to lobby the current Biden administration to view the Sudanese military as a reliable partner to help maintain stability and security in Sudan, Africa and the Middle East.

The Sudanese military believes this tactic will work because the Biden administration has embraced the Trump administration's Arab-Israeli deals, in addition to the fact that it too does not have a policy towards Sudan, nor is Sudan a priority in its agenda.

All this encouraged the military to send both Lt. General Abdel Rahman Dagalo and Lt.General Mirghani Idriss, the head of Sudan's Defense Systems Industries, to further the military’s relations with Israel.

"A military rule is less troublesome for Israel a Sudanese legislative council dominated by competing ideologies and interests that could turn down an agreement"

The visit of the military delegation to Israel before the recent military coup in Sudan is a clear signal that Burhan believes he could use that relationship to get US support to back his rule over Sudan, and he intends to cement that claim by officially visiting Washington to normalise Sudan's ties with Israel in the near future. 

It is highly probable that Israel will support military rule in Sudan. A military rule is less troublesome for Israel a Sudanese legislative council dominated by competing ideologies and interests that could turn down an agreement. Yet, the coup puts the Biden administration in a bind. 

Not only will this military coup undermine Sudan’s ability to build its institutions that safeguard its own transition and democracy, but it also unravels the Biden administration's commitment towards democracy, multilateralism and human rights.

Jihad Mashamoun is a Sudanese researcher and a political analyst on Sudanese affairs. He has authored and co-authored numerous articles on the Sudanese uprisings and Sudanese affairs. 

Follow him on Twitter @ComradeJihad.

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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.