Unlike other states in the region, including those who also began formalizing relations with Israel in the past year, Sudan never had formal or informal diplomatic relations with Israel, until it joined the Abraham Accords in January 2021. Sudan’s ideological stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was reflected in its policy regarding Israel. Most symbolically, in 1967 the Arab League held a summit in Khartoum in which it spelled out the infamous “three no’s:” no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel. Under the regime of Omar al-Bashir (1989-2019), Sudan was known to support groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which Israel classified as terrorist organizations, and for a period had close relations with Iran.
In April 2019 a popular revolution, initially coordinated by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), led to al-Bashir’s downfall. After the Sudanese armed forces committed atrocities against unarmed protesters, mediators brokered a power-sharing deal which provided for a transitional government composed of both civilian and military leaders, meant to lead to new elections after three years. The main objectives of Sudan’s transitional government are to unify Sudan and to transform the country’s decrepit economy; The “civilian camp” would add to that the goal of transforming Sudan into a democratic state. In order to attract foreign investment, the transitional government has exerted great efforts to remove Sudan from the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Even before the revolution, normalization with Israel was seen as the key to improved relations with the U.S. and therefore attractive, in spite of ideological considerations. Since the revolution the main proponent of normalization has been General Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan, the Chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan. The civilian component of the government generally opposes the idea of normalization.
Using Sudanese newspapers as its sources, this article aims to shed light on the range of opinions on Sudan-Israel relations, and to link these opinions to the current challenges facing Sudan. First, it will analyze notable opinions on the topic published before the revolution; second, it will examine opinions expressed after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with al-Burhan in Uganda in February 2020; and third, it will present the range of Sudanese opinions expressed when it became clear that Sudan was normalizing relations with Israel.
Notable Opinions Before the Revolution
After neighboring Chad normalized relations with Israel in November 2018, carefully-worded articles appeared in Sudanese newspapers discussing whether Omar al-Bashir should follow suit. Islamist preacher Mohamed Hashem al-Hakim, affiliated with the University of the Holy Qura’n and the Foundation of Sciences in Wad Medani, favored a “tactical reconciliation” with Israel. He clarified that he saw this as a temporary measure for the purpose of the survival of Sudan, and that outright normalization is not permissible. Yousef al-Kuda, the head of the Islamic Center Party, went farther and even favored normalizing ties with Israel. He justified his position with analogies from Islamic history and pointed out that Egypt and Jordan had also normalized ties with Israel. Both of these leaders assumed a rapprochement with Israel would eventually lead to Sudan’s removal from the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list. These unusual voices, however, were not to be significant until after the 2019 people’s revolution.
Responses to the al-Burhan-Netanyahu Meeting
When al-Burhan travelled to Uganda to meet Netanyahu to discuss the possibility of normalization, Sudanese newspapers emphasized that he had “gone it alone,” without informing the rest of Sudan’s transitional government. Zain al-Abidin al-Tayyib, a leader of the civilian protest movement, the Forces of Freedom and Change (which includes the SPA), asserted that the meeting was not acceptable because the power-sharing agreement that was in effect did not allow for the military to make unilateral decisions about foreign policy. He added that “[w]e firmly believe in the justice of the Palestinian cause, but we support normalization with all countries of the world that love peace, democracy and freedom.” Sudanese writer and analyst Altaqi Mohammed Othman expressed that negotiations like those al-Burhan held with Netanyahu are not in line with the spirit of the “new Sudan based on freedom, justice and equality… Negotiate in the open.” He adds that he does not object to normalization with Israel “as a neighboring country of Palestine.” It could be inferred that these commentators viewed the al-Burhan meeting as problematic not for its intrinsic content, but mostly because it tested the fragile balance between the civilian and military components of the transitional government.
Responses to Normalization
In October 2020 it became clear that the transitional government was ready to move forward on normalizing relations with Israel, that the U.S. was pressing Khartoum to do so as a prerequisite for improved bilateral relations, and that most of the Sudanese civilian leadership opposed the move. The SPA and Sudanese political opposition alliances such as the National Consensus Alliance (NCA) and Sudan Call all expressed solidarity with the Palestinians. Others expressed concern that normalization was being forced upon Sudan by the United States and the United Arab Emirates in exchange for financial aid: the National Umma Party, part of the NCA, called it “unacceptable blackmail”; the Sudan Change Now movement saw it as a “cheap deal that came at the cost of Sudan’s integrity”; and Sudanese commentator Abd al-Rahman Haneen said that instead of Palestinians receiving “land for peace,” Sudan received “food for peace.” It goes without saying that the most radical Islamist parties vehemently opposed normalization. Many Sudanese took to the streets to protest the move on ideological grounds. Interestingly though, the principal complaint most civilian parties expressed, is that the decision to normalize Sudan’s ties with Israel was made by a transitional, and not an elected government. In their view, the military made important decisions without consulting popular opinion, just as it had under al-Bashir. The way in which normalization was decided upon, therefore, went against the democratic spirit of the revolution.
On the other hand, some Sudanese political parties and rebel alliances welcomed normalization, precisely because they viewed the deal as embodying the spirit of the revolution. The Sudanese Congress Party – while part of the NCA which opposed the deal – emphasized that normalization would improve Sudan’s foreign relations, which had been ruined by the former regime. After the death of the Umma Party’s famous leader Sadiq al-Mahdi, the new Umma Party leader mentioned that he was “not against peace with Israel.” The coalition of rebel movements from the conflict-ridden Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile provinces saw the normalization as necessary for Sudan to re-establish contacts with the nations of the world. All of those in favor of normalization saw the move as an opportunity to extricate Sudan from international isolation that the former regime of Omar al-Bashir had brought on.
The open debate concerning normalization with Israel that played out in the Sudanese newspapers demonstrates that the 2019 Sudanese Revolution paved the way for greater freedom of expression. This is in itself a victory for the spirit of the revolution. Yet it is difficult to gauge to what extent the opinions published in Sudanese newspapers reflect the discourse “on the street.” Additionally, Sudan’s dynamic civil society is still fragile. For it to grow stronger, freedom of expression needs to be reinforced and strengthened in Sudan so that it will become a durable institution.
To see Sudan-Israel relations in perspective : it is clear that this issue is not the main priority of Sudan’s transitional government. Even relations with Israel is not a major concern for Sudan when it comes to normalization. Most Sudanese – whether they are in favor or against normalization – see it mostly as a way to improve relations with the United States. These could be reasons why the pace of normalization between Sudan and Israel might be significantly slower than that of the other normalizing states of the region. And while rapprochement with Israel has opened the door for removing Sudan from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list, the transitional government’s main challenges remain: to transform this opportunity into a real change for the Sudanese economy , as protests continue, and to unify the Sudanese people, while violence in numerous areas is still part of daily life.
This article is part of The New Normal? Arab States and Normalization with Israel.
For a full version of this article that includes source citations, please see the original publication file, here.