Israeli, Sudanese officials confirm talks in Khartoum, say normalization near

Statements from Jerusalem, Washington, and Khartoum all indicate official ties close, though Sudanese officials tell Reuters country’s PM demands parliamentary approval

Clockwise, from top left: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem, September 13 2020. (Alex Kolomiensky/Yedioth Ahronoth via AP, Pool); Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok at the Elysee palace in Paris, September 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus); US President Donald Trump at the White House, October 21, 2020 (AP Photo/Alex Brandon); Sudanese Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, head of the military council, west of Khartoum, June 29, 2019 (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)
Clockwise, from top left: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem, September 13 2020. (Alex Kolomiensky/Yedioth Ahronoth via AP, Pool); Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok at the Elysee palace in Paris, September 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus); US President Donald Trump at the White House, October 21, 2020 (AP Photo/Alex Brandon); Sudanese Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, head of the military council, west of Khartoum, June 29, 2019 (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

Sudanese officials confirmed on Thursday that a senior US-Israeli delegation flew to Sudan on a private jet this week to wrap up a deal that would make Sudan the third Arab country to normalize ties with Israel this year.

Sources in Sudan and Israel confirmed to news agencies AP and AFP that a joint delegation had visited Sudan Wednesday to discuss normalizing relations.

And a senior defense official quoted by multiple Hebrew media outlets said that he expected “Sudan, and later Saudi Arabia, to come out of the closet” regarding official ties with Israel.

Amid claims that a deal with Sudan could be announced within days, two government sources who spoke with Reuters said Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has agreed, in principle, to normalize ties but not immediately — conditioning the move on ratification by a still non-existent transitional parliament.

The Israeli-US group met with Sovereign Council president General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and a top adviser to Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, Sudanese government sources said. Israeli sources requesting anonymity had earlier told AFP that an Israeli delegation had traveled to Sudan on Wednesday to discuss the same issue.

US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, told the “Fox & Friends” program on Thursday morning that “there’s more to come” after the recent US-brokered accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien speaks with reporters at the White House, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“I think we’re going to have some announcements soon on that front,” O’Brien said.

Sudan is on a fragile path to democracy after a popular uprising last year led the military to overthrow longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir. A military-civilian government rules the country, with elections possible in late 2022.

It remains unclear when a transitional parliament will be formed amid negotiations between the civilian and military parts of the transitional government.

Sudanese officials told AP the Israeli-American delegation came to put final touches on a deal establishing ties with Israel. The delegation included Ronen Peretz, the acting director-general of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, and Brig. Gen. Miguel Correa, the senior director for Gulf Affairs on the US National Security Council, the official said.

Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok speaks during a press conference in Khartoum, Sudan, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019. (AP)

A second official said the emerging deal would include Israeli aid and investment, particularly in technology and agriculture. The Americans and Israelis also promised to talk to allies in the Gulf and the West to bring investment and debt relief to Sudan. The visit came at a time of protests in Khartoum and elsewhere in Sudan over dire economic conditions.

The officials did not give a time frame but said an announcement could come at “any time” from Trump. They spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement.

US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to Hamdok on Thursday.

“Secretary Pompeo applauded Prime Minister Hamdok’s efforts-to-date to improve Sudan’s relationship with Israel and expressed hope that they would continue, and underscored continuing US support for Sudan’s ongoing democratic transition,” she said.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens during the third annual US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue at the State Department in Washington, DC on September 14, 2020. (ERIN SCOTT / POOL / AFP)

Trump, fighting for re-election on November 3, had pledged Monday to take Sudan soon off the US state sponsors of terrorism blacklist, a legacy of the era of al-Bashir.

Washington has been widely reported to have conditioned the step on Khartoum’s agreement to establish relations with Israel.

The deal would hinge on Sudan following through on its pledge to deliver $335 million to compensate American victims of past terror attacks and their families. The money is meant for victims of the 1998 bombings of US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by the al-Qaeda network while its leader, Osama bin Laden, was living in Sudan.

Pompeo said Wednesday he hoped Sudan would “quickly” recognize Israel.

Israel’s top-selling daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, reported Thursday that Sudan’s post-Bashir transitional joint civilian and military government had internally agreed to normalize ties.

“According to reports that have been received in Jerusalem, the leadership in Khartoum has made a decision in principle to that effect,” the newspaper said.

It reported that “an agreement has been reached between… Burhan, and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who had been opposed up until now to normalizing relations with Israel.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan pose for a photo on the Blue Room Balcony after signing the Abraham Accords during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

The newspaper mentioned a possible announcement by Trump “in the coming days” from Washington, with Netanyahu and Burhan to join by video conference.

Netanyahu and Burhan in February held a landmark meeting in Uganda.

Israeli Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen was also quoted in local media as saying Israel was “very close to normalizing ties with Sudan.”

Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis told Israel’s Army Radio on Wednesday that an announcement on ties would likely come before the US election. “I have a reasonable basis to believe that the announcement will come before November 3. That… is what I understand from my sources,” he said.

While Sudan does not have the influence or wealth of the Gulf Arab countries, a deal with the African country would be deeply significant for Israel.

Sudan hosted a landmark Arab League conference after the 1967 Six-Day War where eight Arab countries approved the “three ‘no’s”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations.

In 1993, the US designated Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism, in part for its support of anti-Israel terror groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah. Under al-Bashir, Sudan was 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 weapons convoy in 2009 and a weapons factory in 2012.

Netanyahu has made it a priority to forge ties with formerly hostile countries in Africa and the Arab world in the absence of any progress with the Palestinians during his more than decade in office. Netanyahu believes that outside pressure could force the Palestinians into abandoning their traditional demands for a state in all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem — lands Israel captured in 1967. The Palestinians have condemned the Arab outreach to Israel as a betrayal of their cause.

President Donald Trump arrives to speak to a campaign rally at Ocala International Airport, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, in Ocala, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

After trumpeting the new deals with the UAE and Bahrain, Netanyahu would welcome another diplomatic breakthrough at a time when his popularity has declined at home due to his handling of the coronavirus crisis and the damage it has caused to the Israeli economy.

Sudan experienced a historic shift last year as Bashir was ousted in April in the face of youth-led street protests, and it is now turning the page on decades as an international pariah.

It has launched a series of reforms, put Bashir on trial and is cooperating with the International Criminal Court to try him over his regime’s scorched-earth campaign in the Darfur region.

Sudan is one of four nations branded by Washington as a state sponsor of terrorism, along with Iran, North Korea and Syria, severely impeding access to loans, foreign investment and debt relief.

Pompeo had discussed the issue of normalizing ties with Israel in August on the first visit in 15 years by a top US diplomat to Khartoum.

But Hamdok at the time demurred on the controversial step, saying the transitional government did not have authority to normalize with Israel.

The diplomatic pressure on Sudan, one of the world’s poorest countries, comes at a time it has been hit by a tanking economy, rising prices and natural disasters.

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, center, waves to people in the conflict-affected remote town of Kauda, Nuba Mountains, Sudan, January 9, 2020. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

“The Sudanese can’t take it anymore. Floods, inflation, power cuts: The country is on its knees and the government is powerless,” said Marc Lavergne, a Sudan specialist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

The Brookings Institute, a Washington-based think-tank, warned recently that the debate about Israel ties “has ignored the fragility of Sudan’s political transition.”

It warned that “if normalization is seen as resulting from exploitation of Sudan’s economic and humanitarian desperation, it will be even more polarizing among the public [and] accelerate the erosion of support for the transition.”

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