Israel in contact with Sudan’s leaders, trying to help calm fighting, official says

Jerusalem ‘talking to whomever we need to’ in effort to end fighting in Khartoum, as full normalization seems even further off

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Sudanese greet army soldiers loyal to army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in the Red Sea city of Port Sudan on April 16, 2023.(AFP)
Sudanese greet army soldiers loyal to army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in the Red Sea city of Port Sudan on April 16, 2023.(AFP)

Israel has a “direct line” to Sudan’s military chiefs, an Israeli diplomatic official told The Times of Israel on Thursday, as it tries to contribute to efforts to calm fighting within the country.

“We are talking to whomever we need to talk to,” said the official, while refusing to confirm reports that  Mossad has built relationships with Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces currently fighting army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

At least 330 people have been killed and 3,300 wounded in the fighting since it began Saturday, the UN’s World Health Organization said, but the toll is likely higher because many bodies lie uncollected in the streets.

Through the night and into Thursday morning, gunfire could be heard almost constantly across Khartoum. Residents reported the heaviest fighting around the main military headquarters in central Khartoum and at the nearby airport.

Sudan’s military ruled out negotiations with the RSF on Thursday, saying it would only accept its surrender as the two sides continued to battle in central Khartoum and other parts of the country, threatening to wreck the latest attempt at a ceasefire.

The military’s statement raised the likelihood of a renewed surge in the nearly week-long violence that has pushed Sudan’s population to the breaking point. Alarm has grown that the country’s medical system was on the verge of collapse, with many hospitals forced to shut down and others running out of supplies.

The Israeli official stressed that Israel is not taking sides in the struggle between erstwhile allies Burhan and his former second-in-command Dagalo.

Sudan’s Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (C) and paramilitary commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (L) lift documents alongside civilian leaders following the signing of an initial deal aimed at ending a deep crisis caused by a military coup, in the capital Khartoum, on December 5, 2022. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP)

“We are working for the good of Sudan,” said the official, “so the situation won’t spread into something even worse. The entire region has an interest in protecting stability.”

Israel has an additional interest. Israel and Sudan agreed in 2020 to take steps to normalize ties following agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco under the Abraham Accords, but Jerusalem and Khartoum have since struggled to finalize any deal.

Part of the holdup was a disagreement between the country’s military and civilian leadership over whether to normalize with Israel. While the military junta now running the country had backed normalization, the effort was put on the back burner and in May last year, the US cut aid to Sudan in response to the coup, further setting back the initiative.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen flew to Khartoum in February to meet with Burhan.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (left) meets with Sudanese ruler Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Khartoum on February 2, 2023. (Shlomi Amsallem/GPO)

“It has been agreed to move forward towards the normalization of relations between the two countries,” Sudan’s foreign ministry said then, following a meeting between Cohen and his Sudanese counterpart Ali al-Sadiq.

But Sudanese military officials told The Associated Press that while Cohen’s trip marked progress on the issue of normalization, full normalization of ties will not be achieved anytime soon.

Also holding up the normalization process was Washington’s desire for Israel to wait until a civilian government took power in Khartoum.

Smoke is seen rising from a neighborhood in Khartoum, Sudan, April 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Marwan Ali)

The deal would end decades of enmity from one of Israel’s bitterest enemies, which famously hosted a 1967 summit at which the Arab League adopted its policy of refusal to engage with Jerusalem.

“So long as there is not a government that rules with broad consensus, it will be hard to advance to something stable with Sudan,” said the Israeli official.

“We are working as much as we can with the Americans,” said the official.

Israel is likely working with Egypt as well. Cairo is a firm backer of Burhan, and saw hundreds of its soldiers temporarily captured by the RSF.

The Israeli official would not confirm any cooperation with Egypt, however, only reiterating that Israel was in touch with any parties it needed to speak to.

AP contributed to this report.

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