Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is currently in Africa on his first official visit to the continent. Along with the civil war in Ethiopia, the Oct. 25 military coup in Sudan that derailed the country's democratic transition is reportedly a priority for his talks in Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal.
US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield raised the issue of Sudan while visiting Israel this week. According to her office, the ambassador's meeting with Defense Minister Benny Gantz “addressed the importance of Sudan’s returning to a civilian-led transition.”
According to Israeli press reports, the two leaders did more than discuss the issue and that Thomas-Greenfield asked Israel to intervene in Sudan to restore civil governance and resume to the transition process. The unusual news follows reports about a similar message from Blinken himself some three weeks ago in talks with Israeli officials. A Nov. 3 report by Barak Ravid read that Washington had asked Jerusalem to press Sudanese military leader Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan to restore the civilian government toppled a week earlier.
Contacts with Sudan on normalization started before the September 2020 signing of the Abraham Accords, which brought about normalization of ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quietly met with Burhan in Uganda in February 2020. After the meeting, Netanyahu announced that Sudan intended to normalize its relations with Israel.
Sudan then joined the Abraham Accords, but agreed to do so in exchange for the United States removing it from the blacklist of countries supporting terrorism. Khartoum signed an agreement with Washington, but to this day has not signed one with Jerusalem.
For an explanation, look to internal Sudanese politics. Up until the military coup, Burhan was part of a government composed of both civil and military ministers and headed by civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. Together with Sudanese intelligence chief Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, Burhan has been the driving force behind establishing relations with Israel. But not all the members of his government felt the same way. Committed to the Palestinian cause, Hamdok and civilian Foreign Minister Mariam al-Mahdi were reluctant to normalize ties with Israel and made their feelings clear in public statements.
The extent of Israeli ties with the military leadership of Sudan came to light with reports of a Sudanese military delegation visiting Israel about two weeks before the coup. The delegation, which included Dagalo, apparently met with officials at Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office, the National Security Council and the Mossad. Other reports said that an Israeli security delegation visited Khartoum a few days after the coup, meeting with military leaders involved in the move, including Dagalo. Israeli officials said the mission of the visit was to comprehend the new situation in Sudan, and that the delegation did not meet with Burhan.
On Nov. 17, the Arab affairs correspondent for Israel’s public broadcaster Roi Kais published an interview with Abu al-Qasim Bortom, a newly appointed member of Sudan's ruling Sovereign Council. After the Abraham Accords were signed, the former parliamentarian had attempted to organize a delegation of Sudanese businesspeople to visit Israel. In the interview, he told Kais that Burhan was fully aware of his stance in favor of normalizing ties with Israel when he appointed him to his new position. “If normalization with Israel fulfills Sudanese interests, then this must be promoted in a clear and straightforward manner,” he noted.
The current political instability in Sudan could postpone normalization of ties with Israel. Though the military leadership is clearly in favor of it and the opposing parts from the civilian leadership have been pushed to the sidelines, normalization is not a priority of the military government.
As it waits for the situation to resolve, the government in Jerusalem must address also another angle of this issue: Sudanese migrants in Israel. Last year's news that Israel and Sudan were normalizing ties raised fears among these immigrants that their refugee status may be revoked. With the military coup, those fears have increased, including the possibility of deportation to a country now ruled by a military regime.