PM’s meeting with Sudan leader — historic breakthrough or election-season ploy?
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PM’s meeting with Sudan leader — historic breakthrough or election-season ploy?

To many Israelis, Khartoum is a symbol of Arab hostility, and diplomatic ties still seem far off. But Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s powwow with Netanyahu may bear first fruits soon

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A Sudanese protester shouts slogans during a demonstration against the military council, in Khartoum, Sudan, on June 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
A Sudanese protester shouts slogans during a demonstration against the military council, in Khartoum, Sudan, on June 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not even try to pretend that his visit to Entebbe, Uganda, on Monday was about Israel-Uganda relations. Obviously, the main reason for the one-day trip to central Africa was to meet with the de facto leader of nearby Sudan, a senior official on Netanyahu’s plane acknowledged to this reporter and the three others who joined his visit.

The meeting with Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s transitional government, was kept secret until about two hours after it concluded. While waiting for Netanyahu and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to address the press, I and the other three Israeli journalists took strolls around Entebbe State House, where the meeting took place, taking selfies with the magnificent view of Lake Victoria in the background. But we did not get so much as a glimpse of Burhan, who apparently took great pains to enter and exit the premises without being seen.

Burhan, the chairman of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council — which serves as collective head of state until elections scheduled for November 2022 — spent about two hours with Netanyahu, but asked the Prime Minister’s Office not to publish any photos of their sit-down.

About 24 hours later, on Tuesday evening, Burhan for the first time publicly acknowledged the meeting, saying it was held out of his “responsibility on the need to work tirelessly for preserving and protecting the Sudanese national security and to achieve the highest interests of the Sudanese people.”

Netanyahu, who on taking off for Uganda early Monday morning had said that he expected “very good news for Israel” to come out of the trip, celebrated his meeting — and the fact that the Sudanese side agreed to publicize it — as a major breakthrough.

PM Netanyahu meets with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni at the State House in Entebbe, Uganda, February 3, 2020 (Haim Tzach/GPO)

“History!” he tweeted on Monday evening, as soon as the military censor lifted the ban on the publishing the story. (We Israeli journalists on the ground in Uganda had been briefed on the meeting but were hitherto barred from reporting it.)

Unsurprisingly, Netanyahu’s political opponents slammed his trip to Africa.

Some downplayed the meeting’s importance, noting that that it was “just a meeting” that did not result in the establishment of full diplomatic ties with Sudan. Others warned that it was outright dangerous.

Burhan only agreed to sit down with the prime minister after the latter agreed to help open doors for him in Washington, critics charged. Despite the lack of tangible progress in bilateral ties, Netanyahu was now selling this meeting as a major achievement ahead of the March 2 Knesset election, they lamented.

Blue and White party number 3 Moshe Ya’alon — Netanyahu’s former defense minister — went as far as claiming that the publication of the meeting harmed Israel’s security interests.

How significant was the meeting, really?

It is true that the timing of the meeting — 27 days before Israelis head to the polls — was hard to ignore. (Israeli officials said that it was the Sudanese who chose the date.)

It is also true that meeting Netanyahu will help Burhan a great deal in his effort to advance ties with the US, which still lists Sudan as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” The prime minister recently told US Secretary State Mike Pompeo that he believes “Sudan is headed in a new positive direction,” the Prime Minister’s Office said Monday.

Khartoum has asked Washington to remove it from this list, citing its commitment to democratization after longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir was ousted last year.

In this May 30, 2019 file photo, Abdel Fattah Burhan, the head of Sudan’s ruling military council, attends an emergency summit of Gulf Arab leaders in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

A possible delisting would probably take months, and could be blocked by the US Congress, but the US administration is clearly appreciative of Khartoum’s willingness to engage with Jerusalem. Shortly after the Entebbe meeting, Pompeo spoke to Burhan and thanked him for his leadership “in normalizing ties with Israel,” and, in a phone call a day earlier, invited him for a visit later in the year.

The establishment of Israel-Sudan diplomatic relations, however, does not appear imminent.

Netanyahu and Burhan on Monday merely agreed to “start cooperation leading to normalization of the relationship between the two countries.” On the plane back from Entebbe to Tel Aviv, the prime minister refused to answer this reporter’s question on how long he thinks this process may take.

It took only two months between Chadian President Idriss Deby’s surprising November 2018 visit to Jerusalem and the formal resumption of diplomatic ties between the African nation and Israel in N’Djamena.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Chad’s President Idriss Déby speak at a press conference at the presidential palace in N’Djamena, Chad on January 20, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Burhan on Tuesday appeared to indicate that he was not on the brink of inviting Netanyahu to Khartoum to celebrate the establishment of diplomatic relations.

“I would like to reiterate that the discussion and development of the relations between the Sudan and Israel remains the responsibility of the concerned institutions, in accordance with the Constitutional Documents,” he declared.

The so-called Constitutional Charter explicitly says that Sudan’s transitional government has the mandate to draft “a balanced foreign policy to achieve the supreme national interests of the state and work on improving and building Sudan’s foreign relations on bases of independence and shared interests in a manner that preserves the sovereignty, security and borders of the country.”

The document does not spell out who exactly has the authority to establish diplomatic relations. Burhan in his statement Tuesday stressed that he would not make that decision by himself. Some members of the Sovereignty Council he currently heads can be expected to oppose ties with the Jewish state, given that Burhan’s noncommittal meeting with Netanyahu elicited much criticism in Khartoum.

Furthermore, the Constitutional Charter stipulated that Burhan will be replaced next year and is ineligible to run in the 2022 election that is supposed to conclude Sudan’s transition to democracy.

In other words, despite meeting the prime minister of Israel, Burhan has not committed to formalizing ties, and even if he wanted to, he may not be able to do so in the time he has left in office.

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

A meeting — even a public one — is not always followed by the establishment of official relations. In June 2017, the president of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, didn’t object to being filmed kissing Netanyahu on the cheeks at the beginning of their meeting at the sidelines of a regional conference in Liberia. But the two countries did not establish diplomatic ties.

Sudanese soldiers fought against Israel in 1948

Ramallah denounced Monday’s powwow in Entebbe as a “stab in the back,” though it did not inherently result in a change to Sudan’s stance vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which supports the creation of a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital.

“This position was never changed and would never change, and continues in line with the Arab consensus and the resolutions of the Arab League,” Burhan stressed Tuesday.

Sudan — a full member of the Arab League since 1956 and currently presiding over its council — voted on Saturday with all other member states in favor of a resolution rejecting the US administration’s peace plan.

Still, the Netanyahu-Burhan meeting was highly significant. As opposed to Chad and Guinea — an African Muslim-majority country that renewed ties with Jerusalem in July 2016 — Sudan is an Arab state. And unlike Chad and Guinea, Sudan has never had diplomatic relations with Israel.

Sudanese students burn an Israeli flag as they demonstrate against the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza outside the UN headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan, December 29, 2008.(AP/Abd Raouf)

In fact, Khartoum and Jerusalem used to be bitter enemies. During the 1948 War of Independence, six Sudanese army companies joined the Egyptians in fighting the nascent state.

Many Israelis associate Khartoum with the “Three No’s” — “No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel” — formulated by an Arab League summit held in the Sudanese capital shortly after the end of the Six Day War.

Until 2016, Sudan was a staunch ally of Iran, helping the Islamic Republic smuggle rockets and other weapons to Palestinian terror groups in Gaza.

That this country’s leader is now willing to openly discuss “normalization” with Israel — even if for ulterior motives and curiously timed at the height of an election campaign — is indeed a dramatic development.

The first fruit of the bilateral “cooperation” Netanyahu and Burhan agreed on is the opening of Sudan’s airspace to Israeli planes. Some technical matters are still being worked out, but a formal announcement is just a matter of days, Netanyahu said Tuesday.

While the path to full diplomatic relations between the former enemies still seems long, Monday’s meeting in Entebbe may at least have contributed to shortening by a few hours flights from Israel to South America.

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