(Bloomberg) — Sudan’s military leader met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and agreed to work toward normalizing relations, in what would be a historic step for the Arab League member that’s never officially recognized the Jewish state.
The surprise meeting between Netanyahu and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s sovereign council, came Monday at the end of a visit by the Israeli leader to Uganda that was part of his latest drive to build ties in sub-Saharan Africa.
Recognizing Israel, a key U.S. ally, could help Sudan’s campaign to persuade Washington to remove it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, as the country edges toward democracy after longtime leader Omar al-Bashir was ousted last year. The initiative may also be a boost for Netanyahu’s re-election bid, allowing him to tout a diplomatic victory ahead of the March 2 vote.
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo welcomed the meeting and “thanked General al-Burhan for his leadership in normalizing ties with Israel.” Sudan is being run by a joint civilian-military administration until elections slated for 2022 and it wasn’t immediately clear if all participants agreed with the step.
Information Minister Faisal Saleh said the government hadn’t been notified or consulted and would seek clarification. No government of Muslim-majority Sudan since independence in 1956 has officially recognized Israel. Soldiers from Sudan have fought in Arab wars against Israel, while the capital, Khartoum, was the scene of a 1967 Arab League summit that famously declared the so-called “Three No’s”: no peace, no recognition and no negotiations.
Sudan, which Bashir ruled for three decades until his overthrow during mass protests in April, had already begun shifting its Middle Eastern alliances. Long an ally of both Iran and Saudi Arabia, the North African nation in 2015 dramatically reduced ties with the Islamic Republic to support the Saudi war against Yemeni rebels, supplying thousands of troops. Israeli officials had previously identified Sudan, which under Bashir espoused a form of Islamist government, as a conduit for Iranian weapons bound for Israel’s enemies.
Israel, Sudan and the U.S.’s histories have been intertwined before. In 1984-1985, Israeli intelligence operatives began secretly airlifting Ethiopian Jews to Israel from Sudanese refugee camps. When the covert operation was revealed, Sudan ended it, but later ceded to pressure from the U.S. to allow it to resume with American military aircraft. The Israeli operation was dramatized in a 2019 Netflix film, ‘The Red Sea Diving Resort.’
In Sudan, the move met condemnation from the Communist Party, a prominent former member of Bashir’s National Congress Party and other Islamist factions. Some leading political activists also decried the statements, although a few voiced support.
The Israeli move is part of a wider initiative to normalize relations with Arab and Muslim-majority states, including some in the Persian Gulf, adding them to Jordan and Sudan’s neighbor, Egypt, with which Israel already has ties. It comes as Netanyahu is in a fight for his political life, dogged by corruption charges and consecutive failures to form a government after back-to-back elections last year.
The Ugandan visit also included talks with President Yoweri Museveni’s government on opening embassies and potential direct flights between Tel Aviv and Uganda.
The Israel premier last visited the East African nation in 2016, four decades after an Israeli raid on Uganda’s Entebbe airport to rescue Israeli hostages held by Palestinian hijackers. Netanyahu’s brother, Yonatan, was killed in the 1976 operation.
Uganda and Israel already cooperate in sectors including agriculture, security, health and information technology, Museveni said in a statement.
(Updates with some Sudanese reactions in eighth paragraph)
–With assistance from Jon Herskovitz, Zaid Sabah and Mohammed Alamin.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Benjamin Harvey at [email protected], Jon Morgan, Gregory Mott
For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com
Subscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.