In a new sign of shifting allegiances in the Middle East and Africa, Sudan’s foreign minister said recently his country is prepared to discuss ending decades of hostility with Israel and to consider normalizing ties.
Speaking on January 14 about an American move to demand Sudanese normalization of ties with Tel Aviv as a precondition for lifting sanctions on Khartoum, Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour said Sudan was open to the idea.
“We don’t mind to study any such proposal,” he said, according to Sudanese reports.
But, he added, relations with the US were separate from relations with Israel and other countries.
This is the first time a Sudanese official has given public voice to the idea of ties with Israel. Sudan has been hostile to the Jewish state since gaining independence from Britain in 1956, claiming that Israel occupies Arab lands.
Jordan and Egypt are the only Arab nations with formal diplomatic relations with Israel.
However, Israeli officials have said in recent years that common interests with Sunni Arab countries also opposed to Iran’s nuclear ambitions could open the door to forging new ties.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said it was aware of Ghandour’s remarks but did not wish to respond.
Former US president George W. Bush imposed economic sanctions on Sudan in May 2007 in protest of Sudan’s role in the Darfur crisis. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is currently wanted in the Hague over war crimes charges.
Khartoum has traditionally been seen as close to Tehran, and Israel has been reported to carry out airstrikes in Sudan against arms shipments from Iran to Gaza. However, Sudan recently joined Sunni Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in cutting ties with Iran. Tensions have been escalating with Shiite Tehran after Saudi Arabia executed a Sh’ite cleric.
Ghandour’s groundbreaking words were reported in the context of meetings of the National Dialogue, launched by Bashir in January 2014 with the aim of bringing diverse groups together to map Sudan’s future. Six committees were created and the meetings began in October.
Mustafa Osman Ismail, head of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP)’s political division, said that committees of the National Dialogue conference would decide whether to normalize relations with Israel, the Sudan Tribune reported.
The idea was raised by a member of the Sudanese Independent Party, who argued that the country’s policy of hostility toward Israel cost the country both politically and economically.
Ibrahim Suleiman said some committee members favored full normalization with Israel, while others — weaker voices — backed complete rejection.
In the middle were members who advocated conditional normalization. He said the view of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), which was calling for “good relations with all nations,” was still unclear.
Suleiman said that the majority of the committee members called for establishment of normal and conditioned relations with Israel.
He added that the discussion is still continuing between the external relations committee’s members.
If normalization were approved by the conference, it would be incorporated into Sudan’s constitution, Suleiman added.
“The United States and Israel are two sides of the same coin and if the government underscores the importance to establish relation with America, why does it not establish ties with Israel?” he said.
Back in 2008, Ismail, then an adviser to the Sudanese president, met with Alberto Fernandez, the top US representative in Khartoum, according to an American diplomatic cable exposed by Wikileaks in 2011.
At that meeting, Ismail reportedly told Fernandez that Khartoum had penned a strategy for working with the US which had immediate, intermediate, and long-term goals.
While discussing relations with Israel as one aspect of this strategy, Ismail said: “If things were going well with the US, you might be able to help us with Israel, as they are your closest ally in the region.” He later denied this, saying Sudan totally refused to cooperate with “the Zionist entity.”
Sudan has accused Israel of fighting it through proxy Sudanese rebels, while Israel has claimed Sudan shelters radical Islamist groups.
Thousands of Sudanese refugees live in Israel.
In announcing the National Dialogue last year, Bashir promised amnesty to political detainees as well as guarantees to rebels and armed groups, committing himself to freedom of expression and political activities “except those that threaten the stability of the country.”
However, the main opposition and rebel groups boycotted the meetings when they began in October.