Burhan’s normalisation with Israel: A desperate move to break out of isolation

The normalisation move could be a case of a controversial and risky diplomatic initiative intersecting with socio-economics.
Tuesday 04/02/2020
President of the Sudanese Transitional Council, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. (AFP)
President of the Sudanese Transitional Council, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. (AFP)

After a two-hour meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the chairman of Sudan’s ruling sovereign council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in the Ugandan city of Entebbe, Monday, the Israeli prime minister’s office announced that the two leaders “agreed to start cooperation leading to normalisation of the relationship between the two countries.”

“Burhan is eager to help his country modernise by taking it out of isolation and putting it on the world’s map,” it added.

The Israeli government is heralding the move a breakthrough following Netanyahu’s visits that build on his trip to Oman in 2018 and to a number of African nations since 2016. Israel now has established or resumed diplomatic ties with 39 of 47 sub-Saharan African states.

In his last visit to Uganda, Netanyahu told President Yoweri Museveni that Israel and Uganda should open missions in each other’s countries.

“You open an embassy in Jerusalem; I’ll open an embassy in Kampala,” he was quoted as saying.

But the normalisation move has caught many, including Sudanese government officials, by surprise. It was only after his return from Entebbe that Burhan briefed the Sudanese ruling body.

Sudan’s government spokesman Faisal Mohamed Salih said the cabinet had only learned of the meeting at Entebbe through the media.

“We, the members of the cabinet, were not notified or consulted about this meeting,” Salih said in a statement.

“This is unprecedented in the sense the head of a freshly minted and transitional government would venture into quickly into the limelight with this,” said a former Arab diplomat whose country conducted normalisation talks with Israel in the 1990s.

Normalisation has many upsides for Israel.

It allows its prime minister to add another feather to his cap before the March 2 elections.  It also enables him to show off influence over the US administration with countries of the region that need to improve ties with Washington.

In commenting on the Entebbe meeting, Netanyahu’s office lauded Khartoum’s progress “in the right direction,” emphasising that “the prime minister expressed his positive views about changes in Sudan to the US Secretary of State (Mike Pompeo),” who invited Burhan to visit the United States “soon” during a phone call February 2.

Quoting Israeli officials, US news website Axios said: “In talks leading up to the meeting, Sudan asked Israel to help open doors in Washington and encourage the Trump administration to change Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terror.”

“Netanyahu agreed and raised the issue with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week in Washington. Last night before Netanyahu left for Uganda, Pompeo called Burhan and invited him for meetings in Washington next week.”

Normalisation with Sudan could open up Sudanese airspace to Israeli planes and allow Israelis to deport Sudanese labourers who make up around one-fifth of illegal workers in the country.

From a geostrategic perspective, the move consecrates Sudan’s definitive shift from militant politics to pro-Western stances, some say. Former Israeli senior diplomat Dore Gold wrote in the Jerusalem Post: “In short, while it was geographically on the periphery of the Middle East, Sudan was part of the joint front against Israel in many significant ways. With Sudan exploring new ties with Israel, that front has been split. And the forces that waged war against the West over the last two decades have lost one of their most important bases of operations.”

The move, which is stirring a lot of controversy in Khartoum, seemed more like a desperate imitative by Sudanese leaders facing a desperate situation at home and abroad.

A Sudanese official told the media, Burhan thought his meeting with Netanyahu would “accelerate” the process of being removed from the terror list. He said only a “small circle” of top officials in Sudan, as well as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, knew of the meeting.

Burhan clearly wants to speed up the process of the removal of Sudan from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism in order for his country to shed its pariah status, break out of its decades-old isolation and start receiving enough support to rebuild its economy.

The listing of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism dates back to the 1990s, when Khartoum used to host a panoply of Middle East groups suspected of terrorist activities, including Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Under deposed autocratic leader Omar al-Bashir, the government’s Muslim Brotherhood affiliation had kept it on a collision course with the West.

The US in December lifted fast-changing Sudan from a blacklist for religious freedoms violations, but the country is still stigmatised as a result of its terror listing.  This month, Sudan has excluded by the US citizens from “diversity visas,” which grant green cards to about 50,000 foreign nationals a year.

For Sudan, removal of the terror listing is economically vital. Its government would like to do away with fuel subsidies, which constitute 36% of the nation’s budget, by next month.

This could be highly destabilising in a country where two-thirds of the more than 40 million population live in poverty. Sudan’s government has also inherited a debt of $60 billion and needs foreign loans and credits from international financial institutions, which are inaccessible as long as the country is on the US terror list.

The normalisation move could be a case of a controversial diplomatic initiative intersecting with socio-economics.

“Is this connected to street pressure?  Yes, you bet. With the protests, rulers are pressed to deliver results on bread-and-butter issues at home, ” said the Arab diplomat.

It remains to be seen whether street politics could hinder the just announced normalisation process or help Sudan address its many woes.