Sudanese torn on Israel ties between loyalty to Palestinians, economic benefits

Normalization deal exposes societal rift in country between those drawn by international boost, and those who view it as a ‘betrayal’

Illustrative: Sudanese protestors shouting slogans during a rally in the capital Khartoum to denounce Israel's military offensive on the Gaza Strip, August 11, 2014. (Ashraf SHAZLY / AFP / File)
Illustrative: Sudanese protestors shouting slogans during a rally in the capital Khartoum to denounce Israel's military offensive on the Gaza Strip, August 11, 2014. (Ashraf SHAZLY / AFP / File)

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AFP) — Sudan’s move to normalize relations with Israel has laid bare deep societal splits, with some bashing it as a betrayal and others viewing it as a way to save the sinking economy.

The move — announced by the White House Friday — came shortly after US President Donald Trump declared that Washington was formally moving to delist Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, a designation that strangled Khartoum’s economy for decades.

But the announcement revealed divisions between political forces in Sudan, a nation undergoing a rocky transition since the April 2019 ouster of strongman Omar al-Bashir, following mass protests against his three-decade rule.

To some in Sudan, the move seemed to be a matter of economic pragmatism to end international isolation.

Composite: Former Sudanese Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, leader of the Umma political party, speaks during a press conference in Khartoum, Sudan, February 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Marwan Ali); Protesters burn an Israeli flag in Khartoum to protest the new normalization agreement (video screenshot)

Others, however, saw it as a step too far, a “betrayal” of the Palestinian cause, and beyond the mandate of the transitional government that took power a few months after Bashir’s ouster.

Sudanese analyst Othman Mirghani said that the priority for the government was saving the economy, as inflation has soared to over 200 percent.

“The government had expected that Sudan’s removal from the US terror list would be linked to normalization with Israel,” said Mirghani, who is also the editor-in-chief of Al Tayyar daily.

“It insisted on the removal from the list, even if it is through Tel Aviv, because a deal would open a door for Sudan’s economy with the international community.”

A deal with Israel would make Sudan the third Arab country since August, after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, to forge normalization with the Jewish nation.

Supporters, like Sudanese trader Mostafa Solieman, believe it would allow the “economy to flourish.”

But others have invoked Sudan’s longstanding anti-Israel stance.

This combination of pictures created on October 24, 2020 shows (L to R): the President of the Sudanese Transitional Council General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan on the outskirts of the capital Khartoum on October 30, 2019; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on January 28, 2020; and Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Hamduk in the capital Khartoum on July 26, 2020.(ASHRAF SHAZLY and Sarah Silbiger / various sources / AFP)

Sudan has been part of a decades-old Arab boycott of Israel.

Following the 1967 Six Day War, Arab leaders gathered in Khartoum to announce what became known as the “three nos”: no peace, no recognition, and no negotiations with Israel.

“Normalization contradicts Sudanese national law, and the Arab national commitment,” said former prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, referring to the boycott of Israel, which remains in force under Sudanese law.

Mahdi, who leads the National Umma Party, refused on Saturday to take part in the transitional government’s conference on fighting Islamist fundamentalism in protest.

In a poll earlier this month by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, only 13% of those questioned in Sudan supported relations with Israel — compared with 79% against.

Sudan’s top Islamic institution said it had issued a fatwa prohibiting the normalization with Israel.

Eid Abdelmoneim, who manages a financial transactions company, said the removal from the US blacklist and normalization with Israel should not have been linked.

“No authority has the right to strike such a deal with Israel without consulting with the people,” Abdelmoneim said.

President Donald Trump speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the phone about a Sudan-Israel peace agreement, in the Oval Office on October 23, 2020, in Washington, DC. President Trump announced that Sudan and Israel are making peace. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

“We don’t need Israel, our country is rich with its resources.”

Mohamed Haidar, of Sudan’s Socialist Baath Party, said the government — set up in a power-sharing deal between civilian and military leaders — does not have the power to strike a deal with Israel.

In August this year, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was quoted as saying his government “does not have a mandate… to decide on normalization with Israel.”

But Hamdok’s government has gone to great lengths to be removed from Washington’s blacklist, which dates to 1993. Bashir’s government hosted wanted militants, including former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in the 1990s.

It has agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to American families of victims of past attacks, dated to when Al-Qaeda had a base in Sudan.

Foreign minister-designate Omar Qamareddin said the deal would only come into force after the approval of a yet-to-be-formed legislature.

It was not immediately clear when a parliament would be created.

On Sunday, Sudan’s foreign ministry said in a statement there will be a joint meeting with Israel “in the coming weeks, to discuss and conclude cooperation agreements in the fields of agriculture, trade, economy, aviation, migration, and other issues.”

But analysts believe the normalization would fuel anger against Sudan’s government.

Former Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, center, confers with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, as Yemen’s President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi looks on as they prepare for a photo session at the extraordinary Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit on Palestinian issues in Jakarta, Indonesia, March 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

“Normalization will add new fuel to existing opposition to the transitional government from backers of the former government, who also see major overlap in interests with the country’s Islamist groups,” said Jonas Horner, from the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank.

“Sudan’s prime minister will be at pains to seek consensus, and to avoid creating deeper divisions during this tenuous transitional period.”

At the same time, the government is facing increasing calls — including protests this week — for action to solve the economic crisis.

“The primary risk to stability in Sudan remains the economy,” Horner added.

“The success of the country’s fragile transition is intimately wrapped up in escaping the deepening economic abyss.”

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