Courting Netanyahu, Sudan sees gateway to improved ties with US
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Courting Netanyahu, Sudan sees gateway to improved ties with US

Sudanese official says meeting in Uganda between Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Israeli PM was orchestrated by the UAE, meant to ‘accelerate’ removal from US terror list

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, right, receives Sudanese Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan at the Presidential Airport in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, May 26, 2019. (Mohamed Al Hammadi/Ministry of Presidential Affairs via AP, File)
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, right, receives Sudanese Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan at the Presidential Airport in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, May 26, 2019. (Mohamed Al Hammadi/Ministry of Presidential Affairs via AP, File)

A senior Sudanese military official said a meeting that the country’s leader held Monday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was aimed at helping remove the US designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terror.

Netanyahu met secretly in Uganda with Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s transitional government, with the Prime Minister’s Office saying that the two agreed to gradually normalize diplomatic ties.

The official, who was not authorized to brief media and so spoke on condition of anonymity, said the meeting was orchestrated by the United Arab Emirates and that only a “small circle” of top officials in Sudan, as well as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, knew about it.

He said Burhan agreed to meet Netanyahu because officials thought it would help “accelerate” the process of being removed from the terror list.

Sudan is desperate to lift sanctions linked to its listing by the US as a state sponsor of terror — a key step toward ending its isolation and rebuilding its economy after the popular uprising that toppled longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir last year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) is welcomed by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni at the State House in Entebbe, Uganda, February 3, 2020. (Sumy Sadurni/AFP)

The meeting, which Sudan has yet to confirm, marked a major diplomatic breakthrough for Israel with an Arab and African country, two days after the Arab League rejected a US peace initiative seen as heavily favoring the Jewish state.

Sudan is a longtime member of the Arab League and joined other members in rejecting US President Donald Trump’s plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The terror listing dates back to the 1990s, when Sudan briefly hosted Osama bin Laden and other wanted terrorists.

Under al-Bashir, Sudan was also believed to have served as a pipeline for Iran to supply weapons to Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip. Israel was believed to have been behind airstrikes in Sudan that destroyed a convoy in 2009 and a weapons factory in 2012.

Sudan hosted the Arab League summit after the 1967 war that became famous for establishing the “three no’s”: no to peace with Israel, no to recognition of Israel, and no to negotiations with Israel.

Sudanese boys walk past an election banner in support of President Omar al-Bashir, in Khartoum, Sudan, that reads “community commission in support of nominating Marshal Omar al-Bashir,” April 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

An Israeli official told Channel 13 news that Sudan had asked Israel to help it improve ties with the United States and urge the Trump administration to drop the terror designation.

Netanyahu agreed to do so, raising the issue with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he was in Washington last week for the rollout of Trump’s peace plan, the network said.

After meeting Burhan, Netanyahu’s office released a statement saying the premier believes Sudan “is headed in a new positive direction” and that he expressed this to Pompeo.

Pompeo phoned Burhan on Sunday and invited him to visit the US, Sudan’s ruling sovereign council said.

The meeting, which Israel said was arranged by Uganda, marked a sharp turnaround for the two countries, once sworn enemies and still technically at war. Sudan — a Muslim-Arab country in northeastern Africa — has recently moved away from Iran’s influence over the latter’s involvement in Yemen, and ousted al-Bashir a year ago.

“We agreed to begin cooperation that will lead to normalization of relations between the two countries,” Netanyahu tweeted. “History!”

Sudanese Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, head of the military council, waves to his supporters upon arriving attend a military-backed rally, in Omdurman district, west of Khartoum, Sudan, June 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

A senior Israeli official said the meeting lasted for two hours.

“The agreement was that this meeting serves as the beginning of a process of bilateral cooperation leading to normalization,” the official said. “It’s a good start.”

Burhan was not seen by several dozen reporters who were present to cover the meeting between Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in Entebbe, and the trip was not reported in most Sudanese media.

Leaving for Uganda on Monday morning, Netanyahu said he hoped to strengthen ties with Uganda, “and I hope that at the end of today, we will have very good news for Israel.”

Netanyahu has made expanding ties in Africa a central plank of his foreign policy.

In 2019, he re-established ties with Chad, and hinted during a visit there that he was working to establish ties with other countries, reportedly including Sudan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) talks with Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman on October 26, 2018 (Courtesy)

The senior Israeli official said that Netanyahu had traveled secretly to Arab countries which Israel does not have relations with, and refused to elaborate.

Israel officials have long expressed a wish for improved ties with Khartoum, citing its importance in the region as well as its geographic location.

Israel has been seeking permission for its planes to overfly Sudan, cutting several hours off of trips to South America.

The senior official said Sudan was expected to give that okay as soon as this week, as part of the normalization process.

Israel last year forged ties with Chad, the other major obstacle to a more direct flight route.

In September, mere days after the new Sudanese cabinet was sworn in, newly appointed Sudanese Foreign Minister Asma Abdullah indicated that her country would be interested in establishing relations with Israel if and when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was solved.

Reports in Israel in recent years have suggested it might normalize diplomatic relations with several Muslim countries in Africa. Israel renewed diplomatic relations with Guinea in 2016. After Netanyahu visited Chad for a renewal of ties in 2019, it was reported that Israel was working to formalize ties with Sudan.

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