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Israel, Sudan to normalize ties? Not so fast

The normalization process is allowing the prime minister to flash his diplomatic bona fides at a time of domestic turmoil, but normalization may still take time.
Shlomi Amsalem/GPO

At a press conference Thursday night at Ben Gurion Airport, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen announced he had met with Sudanese military ruler Abdul Fattah al-Burhan and that the two countries are advancing the normalization of ties. Cohen said he expects Sudan to formally join the Abraham Accords by the end of the year.

Sudan initially agreed to join the Abraham Accords during the visit of US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin in January 2021. Mnuchin and his Sudanese counterpart signed off on Sudan’s accession to the normalization deal with Israel after the United States removed Sudan from its list of countries that support terrorism. Sudan pledged to reduce its debt to the World Bank and received in return a commitment of significant annual US economic assistance. Sudan did not sign a parallel agreement with Israel.

In the ensuing period, Sudan underwent a military coup and unrest continues to plague the restored civilian government, while Israel has also undergone a regime change and faces pro-democracy unrest, making this week's developments seem a public relations ploy by two embattled governments.

Haim Koren, Israel’s first ambassador to South Sudan, spoke to Al-Monitor this week. "We must not forget that the Sudanese have already joined the Abraham Accords," he said. He went on, "They were the last to join and this happened due to their commitment to fight terrorism and distance themselves from Iran and their rapprochement with the moderate Sunni states, especially the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Now they are trying to renew the momentum and increase cooperation and the effort to reach real normalization because there is a difference between a signature and the mechanism itself."

According to Koren, there is no significant internal opposition to the agreement in Sudan. "The Islamist elements in Sudan play a different role than the one we are used to," Koren told Al-Monitor. "They are not against the agreement, perhaps to the contrary. They understand its importance."

What, then, are the remaining barriers to advancing relations and normalization between Israel and Sudan? According to diplomatic sources in Jerusalem, the obstacles stem from the nature of the regime in Sudan, which is not advancing sufficiently fast in adopting democratic standards.

Sudan was targeted several times over the years by Israeli bombings of convoys moving through its territory carrying weapons and ammunition shipped from Iran and destined for Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

A former senior Israeli military source told Al-Monitor, “Those days are long gone,” explaining, “Sudan has chosen to side with the West, with the moderate Sunni states, with Israel. But these things take time. The regime there is still quasi-military, with significant barriers to democracy and human rights. It is hard to change after 30 years of dictatorship — hard but not impossible.”

As always, Israel is having trouble convincing the US administration that it can ease up on democracy demands on Sudan for the greater good and strategic interests involved.

A veteran Israeli diplomat recalled that the Obama administration refused to back off demands for greater liberalization in Egypt under President Hosni Mubarak. "It happened to us at the time with the Egyptians," the diplomat told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "They sealed the fate of the Mubarak regime and did not understand that the Muslim Brotherhood was not a democracy, but rather a takeover of democracy by democratic means,” the diplomat explained, referring to Mubarak’s 2011 ouster by the Muslim Brotherhood. “This problem arises mainly in the face of Democratic administrations in the US, which find it difficult to understand that in the Middle East one must come to terms with the lesser evil in order to prevent the rise of absolute evil."

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken's January visits to Israel appear to have conveyed the Biden administration’s approval for continued progress with the Khartoum regime to advance the Abraham Accords. The American interest, among other things, stems from its desire to distance Sudan from the Russian-Iranian axis, to close the large Port Sudan Red Sea port to the Russian navy and to strengthen the global US-led alliance against the Russian-Iranian-Chinese axis.

In Sudan itself, skeptical voices are still being heard. Sources close to the government claimed this week full normalization will take time, though progress may be faster than expected. It also depends on developments in the Israel-Palestinian arena and other territories.

A senior Israeli security official commented on the matter to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "If, for example, there is a major flare-up between Israel and the Palestinians in the occupied territories or on the Temple Mount, you can forget about official normalization with Sudan. But in the meantime, there is no reason not to promote it. The Sudanese understood that an alliance with Israel greatly enhances the prospects of easing their country’s grave economic and other crises. They really understood that Israel is part of the solution, not part of the problem."

Israel’s Middle Eastern allies have given their blessing to the rapprochement with Sudan. Egypt supports the move as part of its efforts to mobilize American help against Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam dispute. The United Arab Emirates is the second most prominent regional supporter of the move.

Another veteran Israeli diplomat told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the Emiratis are clearly interested in Sudan's shift. The diplomat said, "This is of strategic importance. In my opinion, the Saudis are also involved in this move, for the exact same reasons."

On the question of whether implementation of the Abraham Accords with Sudan will promote a similar, much more important Saudi agreement to enter into official ties with Israel, the diplomat answered, "It is possible, but not certain. The Saudis will require many more concessions and incentives than the Sudanese need. On this issue, which is personal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there is still a long way to go.”

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