US President Donald Trump speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyau about a Sudan-Israel peace agreement in the Oval Office on October 23, 2020. Photo: AFP / Win McNamee

The Israel-Sudan normalization treaty, while seen as an electoral boon for US President Donald Trump, marks a major step for Khartoum.

“The State of Israel and the Republic of Sudan have agreed to make peace,” Trump announced to reporters brought into the Oval Office during a conference call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Sudanese counterpart, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

“Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal, Bibi?” Trump asked the Israeli premier.

To his disappointment, Netanyahu distanced himself from the obvious electoral ploy and replied, “One thing I can tell you is we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America.”

To Israel this is more than a partisan issue. It is part of a significant regional transformation.

Details of what this entails are sketchy. It is currently unknown if embassies are going to be opened because of this agreement. A source in the Israeli Foreign Ministry told the Asia Times on condition of anonymity that Israel will follow the American and Sudanese lead on the matter. “We have no strong feelings on the matter, as far as I know, the source added.

The Sudanese government was at pains to clarify that this was not a peace agreement, but rather Khartoum would be seeking normalization.

What has been confirmed is that Israel will provide Sudan with aid and private investment in technology and agriculture. This element is likely to be welcomed as the Sudanese government, which rose to power following decades of military dictatorship last year, and is struggling to improve its people’s economic situation.

Aside from the US electoral aims, the agreement has geopolitical ramifications, most notably furthering the already significant isolation of Iran in the region. As Netanyahu hinted, “Iran is unhappy, Hezbollah is unhappy, Hamas is unhappy, but most everybody else is very happy.”

The Palestinians are of course very unhappy with these developments. Sudan was traditionally one of the most steadfast supporters of the Palestinian cause. This agreement and the other recent ones undermine the now defunct Arab consensus that normalization cannot occur until there is an independent Palestinian state. PLO official Wasel Abu Youssef complained that this represented “a new stab in the back for the Palestinians.”

The Sudan deal also follows similar agreements with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in August of this year.

Why it matters

The Israeli normalization with Sudan is less strategically significant than the Abraham Accords that normalized its relations with the UAE, since Abu Dhabi is bigger player on the world stage, or with Bahrain, which served as sign of Saudi approval.

However, the Sudan deal is a far more transformative than either of those. Netanyahu was only slightly exaggerating when he said “It is a new world” and added “we are cooperating with everyone. Building a better future for all of us.”

Sudan was involved, though very symbolically, in both the 1948 and 1967 Wars. They also sent forces in 1973 but the Sudanese military arrived too late to participate.

More importantly, Sudan has been a rogue state for quite some time. Perhaps most well known is the genocide which occurred in Darfur earlier this century. However, the Sudanese had also provided a safe harbor for terrorism. Al Qaeda and Hamas operated in the country for years.

To compensate for their role, Sudan agreed to pay $335 million to compensate American victims of past terror attacks and their families. This compensation is owed due to the logistical support Sudan provided to Al Qaeda and its leader Osama Bin Laden in the late 1990s.

In 2016, Sudan first floated the idea of normalizing relations with Israel. This was seen by Khartoum as a way of getting the US to cancel sanctions which had been levied over the situation in Darfur and Sudan’s ties to terrorism. In early 2017, the sanctions were lifted by the Obama administration as a recognition of their improved behavior.

Sudan pursued its more pro-Western orientation with renewed vigor after strongman Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the ICC for crimes against humanity, was removed in a coup d’état in 2019. Days before the agreement was signed, the Trump administration signed a waiver removing Khartoum from the State Department list of state terror sponsors.

Israeli relations with the country have also traditionally been fraught. Not only have their armies faced off, but the two countries were involved in a covert war for decades.

In 2009, the Israeli Air Force conducted an airstrike in Sudan. The target was the passage of Fajr-3 rockets through the country on their way to Gaza, where they would be supplied to Hamas. It was later divulged that the Israeli naval commando had operated on Sudanese territory in conjunction with the bombing, to interdict Iranian operations.

The Sudanese government complained that “it is illegal to infringe the sovereignty of another country”, but could do very little about it. Two years later, Israel assassinated Abdul Latif Ashkar, a Hamas logistics officer in Port Sudan.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert threatened that Hamas will not be safe anywhere, including Sudan. “Those who need to know, know there is no place where Israel cannot operate. Such a place doesn’t exist,” he said.

South Sudan ties

One of the major landmark moments of the Arab-Israeli conflict took place in Khartoum. In 1967 right after the IDF rolled over the militaries of its neighbors in six days, the Arab League announced the Khartoum Resolution. It was determined that the Arab states would say “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.”

Following this symbolic act, and in retaliation for Sudanese participation in the war, the Israeli government began to actively support separatists operating in the southern area of Sudan.

Providing arms and top-quality training, Israel helped improve the South Sudanese military to the point that they successfully established an autonomous zone and was one of the most ardent supporters of their successful bid for independence, which finally came in July 2011. Days after the announcement, Israel happily recognized its newly independent ally.

The South Sudanese government is concerned that the rapprochement between Israel and Khartoum will lessen the traditional closeness with Jerusalem. However, they have refrained from acting against the accord for two reasons.

First, it is a flagship American project. Juba would have difficulty maintaining its ability to remain to function without American and Israeli support. Second, relations between Sudan and South Sudan have improved, as both are more concerned with internal domestic strife than with each other.

The Sudan-Israel agreement is thus not only a triumph for Israeli foreign policy but for the American camp. While the UAE and Bahrain agreements only cemented already existing foreign policy orientation, the deal with Khartoum marks a new direction for a country of 40 million and a step away from a dark past.