ENTEBBE, Uganda — Dramatically improving ties with a former bitter foe, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday met with the transitional leader of Sudan, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, during a whirlwind visit to Uganda.
Netanyahu and Burhan met secretly in Entebbe at the residence of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and agreed to gradually normalize relations, a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The meeting marks a sharp turnaround for the two countries, once sworn enemies and still technically at war. Sudan — a Muslim-Arab country in northeastern Africa — has recently moved away from Iran’s influence over the latter’s involvement in Yemen, and ousted longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir a year ago.
Netanyahu said after the meeting that he believes Sudan is moving in a new and positive direction.
According to Netanyahu’s office, he had made this point to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
On Sunday, Burhan was invited to visit Washington by Pompeo in a phone call, in what would be the first such trip by a Sudanese leader in three decades.
Netanyahu’s office said Burhan expressed interest in modernizing his country and moving it out of international isolation.
Burhan was not seen by several dozen reporters who were present to cover the Netanyahu-Museveni meeting in Entebbe, and the trip was not reported in most Sudanese media.
Leaving for Uganda on Monday morning, Netanyahu said he hoped to strengthen ties with Uganda, “and I hope that at the end of today, we will have very good news for Israel.”
Netanyahu has made expanding ties in Africa a central plank of his foreign policy.
In 2019, he re-established ties with Chad, and hinted during a visit there that he was working to establish ties with other countries, reportedly including Sudan.
Israel officials have long expressed a wish for improved ties with Khartoum, citing its importance in the region as well as its geographic location.
A senior Israeli official told Hebrew-language media in January 2019 that a visit to Jerusalem by Chadian leader Idriss Déby was laying the groundwork for normalizing ties with Muslim-majority countries Sudan, Mali and Niger.
According to a report at the time, Israel’s diplomatic push in Africa was driven in part by a desire to ease air travel to Latin America. Using the airspace of traditionally hostile African countries — namely Chad and Sudan — would allow airlines to offer faster, more direct flights between Israel and the continent.
An Israeli source confirmed Monday that Jerusalem expected that Israeli airlines would be able to fly over Sudan in the near future.
Sudan currently does not have a sitting president, as the country is in the middle of a transition process since longtime ruler Bashir was deposed in April 2019. In 2009, Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court for atrocities committed in Darfur.
Burhan is the chairman of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, an 11-member group that is running the country until November 2022, when democratic elections are scheduled.
In September, mere days after the new Sudanese cabinet was sworn in, newly appointed Sudanese Foreign Minister Asma Abdullah indicated that her country would be interested in establishing relations with Israel if and when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was solved.
Asked by Al Jazeera in a televised interview whether Khartoum and Jerusalem would establish ties, Abdullah replied: “Now is not the time.”
However, she said that Sudan did not in principle have a problem with establishing ties with Israel and could make such a move in the future. She stuttered: “Of course, in principle… I mean, if you look at the Arab states… Most of them have relations in one way or another. Sudan is one of the Arab states, but now is not the time.”