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August 30, 2020 5:04 am

The Odds of Normalization With Israel: Could Sudan Be Next?

avatar by Hannah Yacknin-Dawson


US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives in Khartoum, Sudan, Aug. 25, 2020. Photo: Pompeo’s Twitter account.

The international community is placing bets on which Muslim country will be the next to court the Jewish state. The house is offering odds in favor of another Gulf monarchy — Oman, Bahrain, or perhaps even Saudi Arabia. However, there is another oft-overlooked contender in this race: Sudan. Invigorated by the Israeli-UAE rapprochement, Khartoum may now be accelerating toward the finish line of normalization.

Shortly after the UAE-Israel announcement, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Haidar Sadiq said that Sudan aims to move “towards a peace agreement with Israel.” But enthusiasm plainly eclipsed diplomatic tact, as Sadiq was subsequently fired and officials rescinded his remarks. Even with a winning hand, showing one’s cards too early can prove fatal.

Authorized statement or not, the noticeable warming of Israeli-Sudanese ties attests to the veracity of Sadiq’s pronouncement. Before Sudan began investing in the bilateral relationship, public approval of formal recognition of Israel stood at a mere 18%, according to the 2016 Arab Opinion Index. By February 2020, 60% of 26,000 respondents of an informal poll conducted by Sudanese political activist Dr. Asaad Ali Hassan expressed a readiness to normalize relations.

Even amid a global pandemic, diplomatic progress has doubled down. In May, Israel worked to save the life of a Sudanese-Israeli mediator. A month later, for the first time in history, an Israeli aircraft flew over Sudanese airspace. Building on the momentum, Mossad Director Yossi Cohen traveled to the UAE just last week to meet with the deputy head of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council.

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According to Brig. Gen. Amir Mohammed al-Hassan, of Sudan’s armed forces, normalization will help stimulate economic stability within the nation, which the US classified as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1993. Still suffering the financial impact of now-lifted 1997 US sanctions, the Sudanese people appear to recognize that an official relationship with Israel could also serve as a bridge to reconciliation with the US. As it happens, earlier this week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled on the first official flight from Israel direct to Khartoum.

Another signal that the Sudanese people are keen on repairing relations with the Jewish state occurred in the literal sense: In February, activists organized a clean-up of the desecrated Jewish cemetery in Khartoum.

After the 1967 Six-Day War, Sudan vowed never to make peace, negotiate with, or recognize Israel. Nonetheless, there were instances of back-channel collaborations with the nation that supposedly did not exist. But whatever rapport existed, however slight, was ousted along with Prime Minister al-Mahdi by Omar al-Bashir in 1989. An advocate of radical Islamic ideology, al-Bashir transformed Sudan into a weapons-smuggling hub for Iran.

Eventually, al-Bashir grew weary of these radical ties and realigned with Saudi Arabia. By that time, Sunni Arab states had unofficially begun to warm up to their Jewish neighbor. Al-Bashir wanted a slice of the benefits.

After years of human rights abuses, claims of genocide, and other war crimes, the Sudanese dictator was overthrown. But his interim replacement, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, didn’t abandon the inclination to embrace Israel. International relations expert H.A. Hellyer argues that al-Burhan’s decision “runs the risk of damaging relationships with the wider Arab world,” while also upsetting constituents.

But al-Burhan may have less to fear than Hellyer predicts, considering Dr. Hassan’s informal poll results. As Sudan continues to transition to a fully democratic society, normalization with Israel may naturally follow. As for Hellyer’s claims about damage to Sudan’s relations with the Arab world, other events, like India’s historic pro-Israel UN vote, which had little to no effect on its relations with Arab countries, suggests otherwise.

International relations scholars are boldly wagering that another normalization agreement between Israel and a Muslim nation is imminent. The rapidly developing reconciliation between Israel and Sudan may prove to be the royal flush.

Hannah Yacknin-Dawson is a Research Associate at SIGNAL, Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership.

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