Day after in Sudan as normalisation deal with Israel is sealed

Karthoum knows that normalisation is not just opening an embassy in Israel or attending a staged ceremony in Washington.
Saturday 24/10/2020
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) meets with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok (R) in Khartoum, last August. (AFP)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) meets with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok (R) in Khartoum, last August. (AFP)

KHARTOUM – The Sudanese government and the Presidency Council could not fend off for long US pressure aimed at pushing them to normalise relations with Israel.  They could not continue forever their manoeuvring so as to leave the burden of the decision to the next parliament amid their wariness about the post-normalisation phase and its possible negative repercussions if Sudan found itself eventually discredited.

On Friday, Israel and Sudan agreed to normalise relations in an agreement brokered by the United States, making Sudan the third Arab country to agree to establishing relations with Israel within two months.

Senior US officials said that US President Donald Trump, who is seeking a second term come November 3, sealed the deal in a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok and Transitional Council Chairman Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

“The leaders agreed to normalise relations between Sudan and Israel and end the state of hostility between the two countries,” a joint statement issued by the three countries said.

On the US side, the agreement was mediated by Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser, Avi Berkowitz, US Envoy to the Middle East, Robert O’Brien, National Security Advisor, Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, and Miguel Correa, National Security Council Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“This is clearly a big breakthrough,” Kushner said. “This is obviously going to create a big breakthrough peace between Israel and Sudan. Getting peace agreements done are not as easy as we are making them look right now. They are very hard to do,” he added.

Officials said a signing ceremony for the agreement is expected to be held at the White House in the coming weeks.

Sudanese observers believe that the hesitation that appeared from the Sudanese side in the few hours before the announcement of the agreement has nothing to do with a principled anti-normalisation stance, but rather is mainly due to fears of the post-normalisation stage, i.e. what Sudan would get in return for normalising relations with Israel, and who would pay for that? Will it be the United States, Israel, or some Arab countries?

Sudan is not just looking forward to be removed from the US list of states sponsoring terrorism, to be allowed to do transactions in dollars and to be able to obtain loans from international financial institutions, but it is also looking for better support of the political transition in the country through generous investment projects that would help it withstand any new uprising.

Sudanese officials view normalisation with Israel as an award that will help them continue on the path of democratic change, and, naturally, they are wondering who will be presenting this award.

It is difficult for Washington to make commitments or use its clout to save the Sudanese economy. Israel is also looking to build promising financial and economic partnerships with Sudan, and so are the Emirates, but Israel is far from willing to fill in the role of a saviour or philanthropist who will take Sudan’s hand to safety.

Sudan’s hope remains dependent on Gulf support that helped it so far through the difficult stages since the ouster of Omar al-Bashir. But the Sudanese situation is complex and with a variety of needs that risk to eventually turn into a burden for the Gulf donor countries, especially in these tough conditions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and falling oil prices which are pushing them to reconsider their priorities or face greater pressures if they are to pursue their initial economic goals. Saudi Arabia, for example, has decided not to abandon the ambitious major projects it embarked on in recent years.

With respect to normalising relations with Israel, Sudan’s case is different from that of the UAE or Bahrain. The latter have taken the step mainly within the framework of Gulf security considerations in relation to Iranian threats, which is not the case of Sudan.

Furthermore, these countries are not experiencing major problems with Washington, problems that they might be seeking to resolve through acquiescing to US pressure to have them normalise relations with Tel Aviv, which is the case of Sudan. Add to that the fact that President Trump wanted to secure an actionable peace deal between Israel and Sudan as quickly as possible in order to add it to the list of his achievements just in time for the presidential elections.

Normalisation with Israel may not, in the end, bring in the needed gains to the new authorities in Khartoum, which fear that the process of political transition could experience a setback at any moment now, due to the myriad of problems that are like time bombs left by the Islamist regime of Omar al-Bashir, particularly the acute social and economic crisis, compounded by tribal and ethnic conflicts.

While Khartoum views normalisation as a complicated matter, Washington sees it as a simple step previously undertaken by countries such as the UAE and Bahrain, and before them Egypt and Jordan. The same applies to Israel, which does not exaggerate the issue, especially as it feels more in tune with the other components of the region and welcomes any type of normalisation, whether in the form of official and overt relations or in the form of secret dealings that may have to stay under cover for a little while longer.

For this reason, the current Sudanese authorities had sent contradictory signals about normalisation and its timing, and preferred to leave the matter up to the legitimate parliament that will be elected rather than to them as a transitional authority. In the end, however, they had to accept the fait accompli, knowing that normalisation is not just opening an embassy in Israel or attending a staged ceremony in Washington.

Ishaan Tharoor, an analyst for the Washington Post, has warned that Trump’s pressure on Sudan to get it to normalise relations with Israel could backfire.

He quoted Yonatan Touval, a senior analyst at the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, as saying that Sudanese civilian leaders may prefer to make a clear decision on ties with Israel much later, possibly as late as after the Sudanese elections of 2022.

He reported that Touval wrote “the Trump administration’s “bullying” of Sudan to normalise ties with Israel soon would probably embolden both the military, on the one hand, and Islamists, on the other. It would confirm the former’s ironclad grip over national security, while helping the latter rally public opposition under their banner.”

“For rather than heralding a thriving relationship between the two sides, the aggressive manner in which the Trump administration is forcing Sudan’s hand risks undermining the country’s delicate process to democratic rule, strengthening its military over the civilian stakeholders, enhancing the appeal of Islamist groups, and, ultimately, dooming any relationship between Israel and Sudan to a premature and precipitous end,” Touval added.

A Sudanese government official said on Friday that “the step of normalisation with Israel is complicated and requires a complete agreement between the components of the transitional authority that has not yet been completed.”