Israel’s foreign minister in Sudan for normalization talks

Khartoum says the countries agreed to move forward with normalizing ties, after Eli Cohen meets with Sudanese military ruler Abdel Fattah al-Burhan

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets with Sudan's ruling General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum on February 2, 2023. (Twitter screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets with Sudan's ruling General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum on February 2, 2023. (Twitter screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

An Israeli delegation headed by Foreign Minister Eli Cohen visited Khartoum on Thursday and met with Sudan’s military leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Khartoum, Sudanese authorities confirmed.

The pair discussed “ways to establish fruitful relations” between the two countries and “prospects of cooperation” in security, agriculture, energy, health, water and education, according to a statement by Sudan’s sovereign council.

Sudanese leaders also spoke of a need to achieve “stability between Israel and the Palestinian people,” according to a statement from the council.

The Sudanese foreign ministry later said the sides agreed to move forward with normalizing ties.

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

Three military officials told The Associated Press that Cohen’s trip marked progress on the issue of normalization. However, they said that full normalization of ties will not be achieved anytime soon. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the talks with reporters.

Cohen was slated to land back in Israel later in the evening and hold a press conference about the trip, which his office called a “historic diplomatic visit.”

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

Cohen’s trip was the the first official by an Israeli foreign minister to Khartoum. He had previously visited in January 2021 when serving as intelligence minister, because the first minister to travel to Sudan after the countries agreed to normalize ties.

The foreign minister was accompanied by Ronen Levy, the ministry’s director-general, who Cohen tapped for the post last month. Levy previously served in the Shin Bet security agency and the National Security Council, where under his codename “Maoz” — or stronghold — he worked behind the scenes laying the groundwork for the 2020 Abraham Accords.

A fluent Arabic speaker, Levy developed close ties with officials in Sudan and Chad. He also was a key player in the security relationship with Egypt and establishing personal ties with senior Moroccan officials.

Cohen’s visit came a day after an Israeli official told Hebrew media outlets that US diplomats in the region with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken informed Israeli counterparts that Sudan was readying to finalize an agreement to join the Abraham Accords, the framework agreement under which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco also normalized ties with Israel.

The official said meetings had been held in recent weeks between Sudanese and Israeli officials, at the urging of the US, paving the way for the deal to be revived.

Sudan initially announced it was ready to join the Abraham Accords as part of a deal that was also meant to net the financially struggling country with US aid and removal from Washington’s state-sponsored terror blacklist.

However, Khartoum never signed the full accords, amid a disagreement between the country’s military and civilian leadership over whether to normalize with Israel. Doing so 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.

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.

This combination of pictures created on October 23, 2020, shows an Israeli flag during a rally in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on September 19, 2020; and a Sudanese flag during a gathering east of the capital Khartoum on June 3, 2020. (JACK GUEZ and ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP)

According to the official, agreements with Mauritania and Indonesia may be in the offing as well. Israel and Mauritania maintained ties from 1999 to 2009; Jerusalem and Jakarta have for years had friendly mid-level contacts.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who returned to power late last year at the head of the most right-wing government in the country’s history, has made broadening Israeli ties across the Arab and Muslim world a foreign policy priority.

Netanyahu has repeatedly expressed his desire to see Saudi Arabia join the Abraham Accords.

The kingdom’s top diplomat said last month it would not normalize ties with Israel in the absence of a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

On Thursday, Chadian President Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno opened his majority-Muslim country’s embassy in Israel, four years after the countries renewed ties following a decades-long rupture.

Netanyahu’s office in a statement called the embassy’s inauguration in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv “a historic moment.”

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