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Analysis'It's hard to see how normalization can move forward now'

Sudan coup puts Israel ties on backburner, but unlikely to derail normalization

Military leaders who pushed ties with Jerusalem are now in control. But with bigger issues to deal with, the already torpid normalization process is expected to slow even further

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A Sudanese demonstrator carrying a national flag walks by roadblocks set up by protesters on a street in the capital Khartoum, on October 26, 2021. (AFP)
A Sudanese demonstrator carrying a national flag walks by roadblocks set up by protesters on a street in the capital Khartoum, on October 26, 2021. (AFP)

For the last year, Sudan was the shoe that didn’t drop. While Israel’s ties with the UAE, Bahrain, and in many respects Morocco, were progressing apace, normalization with Khartoum remained stuck.

“Sudan has always been the complicated one in the Abraham Accords quartet,” said Joshua Krasna, Middle East expert at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. “Three countries have normalized relations, and one has indicated it was going to two or three times, but never did, at least formally.”

Then came this week’s move by Sudan’s military, seizing power and arresting the civilian leadership it had previously shared control with under a transitional government.

The takeover came after weeks of mounting tensions between military and civilian leaders over the course and pace of Sudan’s transition to democracy. It threatened to derail that process, which has progressed in fits and starts since the overthrow of longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir in a popular uprising two years ago.

But with the military in control, the unrest is not expected to significantly disrupt the long-term trend toward improved ties.

The military leadership that has taken power is made up of the same officials who had been the driving force behind normalization with Israel, dragging along a reluctant civilian government that has now been deposed by the coup.

Sudanese Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan speaks during a press conference at the General Command of the Armed Forces in Khartoum, on October 26, 2021. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP)

But if the implementation of normalization declarations was plodding along before, now it is expected to fall even further down Khartoum’s agenda.

“It doesn’t stand at the head of their priorities,” said Haim Koren, a former Israeli envoy to Egypt and South Sudan. “They have a series of problems they’re dealing with.”

The path to Washington

Even before Israel and Sudan agreed to work towards normalizing ties last October as part of the Abraham Accords, the two-headed Sudanese government was putting out contradictory signals on Israel.

For decades, Bashir’s Sudan had vociferously opposed any contact with Israel, and even as military leaders warmed up to the idea of establishing ties as a pathway out of Khartoum’s pariah status, the civilian side of the government and much of the Sudanese street continued to eye normalization warily.

As it did with other countries that established ties under the Abraham Accords, the Donald Trump administration had pressured Sudanese leaders to recognize Israel by dangling economic and diplomat rewards for the move.

US President Donald Trump talks on the phone with the leaders of Sudan and Israel, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, applaud in the Oval Office, October 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In this case, recognition would allow Sudan to reap the economic benefits of being removed from the US list of state sponsors of terror, opening the door to ties with Washington as well.

“The Americans convinced them that the path to Washington runs through Jerusalem,” explained Koren.

The military saw the clear benefits of normalization and moved to deepen contacts with its Israeli counterparts, while the civilian government sought to put the brakes on the process.

“It’s no secret that the ones pushing for normalization were the military leadership and not the civilian leadership,” said Rina Bassist, Africa editor at Israel’s KAN public broadcaster.

In February 2020, Sovereignty Council head Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan secretly met with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Uganda, reportedly without notifying his civilian counterparts.

When news of the meeting became public, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok – put under arrest but released Tuesday – disavowed any knowledge of Burhan’s trip.

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

In November of that year, an Israeli military delegation visited Sudanese commanders, a month after the US had announced Khartoum’s plans to join the Abraham Accords. The civilian government, seemingly unaware of that visit as well, initially denied it had taken place before confirming it.

Security officials have continued to meet with Israelis this year.

Earlier this month, a delegation of Sudanese security officials made a secret trip to Israel to discuss bilateral relations, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya network reported. Hebrew media also cited an unspecified Arabic report that said the delegation was led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the powerful commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, and also included the head of Sudan’s state-run defense manufacturer.

Meanwhile the civilian side showed little interest in establishing a relationship with Jerusalem. In an interview last month, Sudan’s foreign minister downplayed the ties and said there were no plans to establish an Israeli embassy in Khartoum.

“Israel hasn’t managed to create any real dialogue, a deep dialogue, with the civilian leaders, who were supposed to do govern Sudan after the [July 2023] elections,” Bassist explained.

Nonetheless, the civilian side had shown some signs of being willing to live with normalization. In April, the Sudanese cabinet abolished a 63-year-old Israel boycott law. And last month, Sudanese authorities seized assets of companies linked to Hamas.

Even more dramatically, earlier this month a senior civilian official showed he was willing to meet with Israelis and have his picture taken, when Sudanese Justice Minister Nasredeen Abdulbari met with Regional Affairs Minister Issawi Frej and Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll while visiting the United Arab Emirates.

Sudanese Justice Minister Nasredeen Abdulbari meets with Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll in Abu Dhabi on October 13, 2021. (Foreign Ministry)

That same minister is now under arrest at the hands of the military.

Though his arrest, and the coup in general, have nothing to do with Israel, they will make the painfully slow normalization process even slower.

“With this type of political instability,” said Bassist, “it’s hard to see how they can move forward toward normalization, just as Sudan can’t make progress on other important things.”

Not only will the unrest delay normalization, it may also concern Israel for other reasons.

“Stability around the Red Sea and east Africa is extremely important for Israel, and it’s important there is stable rule there,” Koren said, noting that the US and Europe were also worried by the prospect of prolonged fighting over the country.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi arrives to speak at the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2019 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

“At the end of the day,” he said, “domestic stability in Sudan means stability in the region, one of most strategically important regions in the world.”

Cairo and the coup

Israel has thus far remained silent about Sudan, refusing to weigh in on the record regarding the coup or what it could mean for normalization.

While the Biden administration remains committed to the Abraham Accords, it has also sought to convey its displeasure with military leaders over the coup, announcing the halt of $700 million in emergency assistance to Sudan and calling for the release of all jailed civilian officials.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reported that he spoke with Hamdok on Tuesday, shortly after he was freed, the first high-level contact the US has had with Sudan since the coup and the suspension of aid. Blinken emphasized that the US supports a civilian-led transition to democracy in Sudan, a State Department statement said.

People burn tires during a protest a day after the military seized power Khartoum, Sudan, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. The takeover came after weeks of mounting tensions between military and civilian leaders over the course and the pace of Sudan’s transition to democracy. (AP Photo/Marwan Ali)

But Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which are thought to play key roles in normalization efforts, appear to at least tacitly support the coup.

Burhan trained in Egypt’s military college and has made multiple visits since 2019 to the Emirates’ de-facto ruler, Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Both countries avoided criticizing Monday’s coup, calling instead for calm and dialogue.

“It’s known that the military part of the Sudanese government is strongly supported by the UAE and the Egyptians,” noted Krasna, who argued that Cairo wields so much influence in Sudan that it’s possible Burhan took power with Egypt’s tacit approval.

“While the Egyptians may not yet play the regional role that they may assign themselves, certainly regarding Sudan they are the heavyweight,” he said. “It’s hard for me to imagine they would have gone through with this without at least touching base with their major supporter, their financial supporter on the one hand and political supporter on the other.”

The Gulf states have been major donors to Sudan since Burhan and Dagalo shifted Sudan away from Iran, and Sudanese forces have been dispatched to Yemen to fight with the Saudi-led coalition against Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels.

“There’s a general preference for a strong military leader who is very transactional. That fits Gulf interests more than a democratic government,” said Cameron Hudson, a former US State Department official and Sudan expert at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

Thousands of pro-democracy protesters take to the streets to condemn a takeover by military officials in Khartoum, Sudan, October 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Ashraf Idris)

“They’re fearful of what an Arab Spring success story looks like,” he said, referring to the uprisings in 2011 that helped inspire the Sudanese protests.

Israel, which has shown a willingness to deal with authoritarians across the region in the past, will likely continue to stay out of the fray, seeing little profit in loudly backing either side, especially with normalization still on the table.

But while the coup has put the process on the backburner, at some point Sudan’s rulers are expected to have the bandwidth to make progress on ties with Israel, with the backing of Egypt and the UAE.

“I assume that they are leaving space to improve relations and move things forward,” said Koren, “but we’ll need to wait a little and see how things develop.”

AP and Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report. 

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