US secretary of state expresses support for 'deepening' ties

Sudanese prime minister rejects ties with Israel, for now

After meeting Mike Pompeo, Abdalla Hamdok says transition government he heads has no mandate to normalize relations with Jerusalem

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok hosts Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on August 25, 2020 (Twitter)
Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok hosts Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on August 25, 2020 (Twitter)

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok said Tuesday that his government cannot normalize ties with Israel until after its political transition, in a statement issued as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Khartoum to promote such a peace agreement.

“The transitional phase in Sudan is led by a broad coalition with a specific agenda: to complete the transition process and achieve peace and stability in the country, leading to free elections. The transitional government does not have a mandate beyond these tasks to decide on normalization with Israel. This matter will be decided upon after the duties of the transitional government are completed,” Hamdok said in a statement.

Since the 2018-9 Sudanese revolution, the country has been led by a transitional government composed of a military leader — Abdel Fattah Burhan — and a civilian head of state — Hamdok. The transitional period is slated to end in 2022.

Pompeo landed in Sudan Tuesday as part of a regional tour urging more Arab countries to normalize ties with Israel, following the US-brokered Israel-United Arab Emirates agreement.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives in Sudan, August 25, 2020 (Twitter)

Pompeo, the first American top diplomat to visit Sudan since 2005, arrived on a historic “first official non-stop flight” from Tel Aviv, he tweeted from the plane.

It was in Khartoum in 1967 that Arab leaders, after the blistering defeat against Israel in the Six-Day War, adopted their “Three No’s” resolution: “No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.”

Israel remains technically at war and has no formal diplomatic relations with Sudan, which for years supported Islamist forces under its former strongman Omar al-Bashir.

But its new transitional government has vowed to break with the Bashir era, following his ouster last year amid popular pro-democracy protests.

Pompeo was meeting Hamdok and Burhan to discuss continued US support for the civilian-led transitional government “and express support for deepening the Sudan-Israel relationship,” the State Department said.

A later statement by the State Department said that apart from that issue, Pompeo and Burhan had discussed the “importance of the military’s continued support for the civilian-led transitional government and Sudan’s path toward democracy.” Pompeo “stressed the need for international support to strengthen the protection of civilians in Darfur,” according to the statement.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo departs Israel on first ever official direct flight from Israel to Sudan, August 25, 2020. (US Embassy Twitter screenshot)

Sudan, which has launched sweeping social and political reforms, now hopes Washington will soon take it off its blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism as it seeks to fully re-integrate into the international community.

Closer ties with US ally Israel would help, and both sides have already taken a series of steps, muddied however by mixed messaging from Sudan.

In a tweet from the meeting with Pompeo, Hamdok urged his country’s delisting from the terror blacklist, but seemed to skirt the Israel question raised by Pompeo.

Hamdok’s tweet read: “we had direct & transparent conversation regarding delisting Sudan of #SSTL, bilateral relations & US government support to the CLTG.”

He added: “I continue to look forward to positive tangible steps in supporting the glorious Sudanese revolution.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Burhan in Uganda in February and later announced that the two leaders had agreed to cooperate toward normalizing ties.

Sudan’s cabinet later denied that Burhan had made such a promise, which remains highly controversial in much of the Arab world.

More recently, Sudan’s foreign ministry spokesman, Haider Badawi, said he was in favor of an accord, but Foreign Minister Omar Gamaledinne then said the issue had “never been discussed by the Sudanese government” and fired the spokesman.

The coalition of parties and civil society groups that led the Sudanese protest movement, the Forces of Freedom and Change, argued Tuesday that the government has “no mandate” to normalize ties with Israel, pointing to “the right of Palestinians to their land and to a free and dignified life.”

Sudan’s new Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok at a press conference in Khartoum, Sudan, August 21, 2019. (AP Photo, File)

Thawing US relations

Pompeo’s regional trip, also taking in Bahrain and the UAE, comes in the wake of the landmark August 13 announcement of a normalization of relations between the Emirates and the Jewish state.

Speaking in Jerusalem on Monday, both Pompeo and Netanyahu said that they were hopeful that other Arab states would follow suit — in part to boost an alliance against their common enemy Iran.

Sudan has been under US sanctions for decades because of the presence of terror groups in the country, including Osama bin Laden, who lived there for years in the 1990s before heading to Afghanistan.

While the US lifted a 20-year trade embargo against Sudan in October 2017, it kept the country on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and Khartoum has been lobbying hard to have that designation lifted.

Sudan has been in talks on compensating victims of Bashir-era Al-Qaeda attacks, including the 2000 USS Cole bombing in Yemen and the simultaneous 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Sudan’s deposed president Omar al-Bashir sits in a defendant’s cage during his corruption trial at a court in Khartoum on December 14, 2019. (AFP)

Since January Washington has upgraded its diplomatic representation in Khartoum from the level of charge d’affaires to posting an ambassador.

The Pompeo visit comes as Sudan is in deep economic crisis — having suffered decades-long US sanctions and the 2011 secession of the country’s oil-rich south.

Grappling with high inflation and the coronavirus pandemic, the country badly needs to attract more foreign aid and investment.

The United Nations says more than 9.6 million people — almost a quarter of Sudan’s population — are suffering severe food insecurity.

“They are extremely keen to have US sanctions lifted and they are under heavy UAE influence,” said Cinzia Bianco, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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)

While Bashir is on trial over the Islamist-backed coup that brought him to power over three decades ago, the new transitional government in Khartoum is at pains to distance itself from his legacy.

It has agreed in principle to hand Bashir over to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for his role in the Darfur conflict on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Conflict broke out in the Darfur region in 2003 when ethnic minority rebels staged an uprising against the government, citing marginalization and discrimination.

Khartoum responded by unleashing the feared Janjaweed militia, mainly recruited from Arab pastoralist tribes, in a scorched earth campaign that left 300,000 people dead and displaced 2.5 million.

Hamdok has made finding a peace deal with rebel groups a priority, in order to bring stability to restive regions that also include Blue Nile and South Kordofan.

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