In October 2012, Omar al-Bashir, then the Sudanese president, referred to Israel as the “Zionist enemy that will remain the enemy”. Sudan’s steadfast enmity towards Tel Aviv is long-standing, having declared war on Israel in 1967. But this might be changing.
“There is no reason to continue hostility between Sudan and Israel,” remarked Haider Badawi, the former spokesman to the foreign affairs ministry in a recent interview with Sky News Arabia. “We don’t deny that there are communications with Israel,” Badawi added, describing the United Arab Emirates’ recent move to sign a peace agreement with Israel as a courageous move. The former spokesman’s remarks drew a pledge from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “do all that’s needed” to wrap up the deal.
But Sudan’s newly appointed foreign minister, Omar Ismail, sacked his spokesman the next day, claiming no such deal had been reached.
Ismail denying such a relationship may not mean that others in the government are not actively pursuing closer ties between Sudan and Israel, says analyst Cameron Hudson.
Hudson, a senior fellow at the United States-based foreign policy think-tank the Atlantic Council and long-time former chief of staff for the office of the US special envoy to Sudan, believes Israel is attempting rapprochement through intelligence and military channels rather than diplomatic and civilian ones.
“Civilians have not been involved in this conversation [between Sudan and Israel] — remember, it was [General Abdel-fatah] Burhan who met Netanyahu. [Sudanese] Prime Minister [Abdalla] Hamdok was seemingly unaware at the time,” said Hudson.
It is telling that Israel’s intelligence minister, Eli Cohen, told Israeli broadcasters that “the prime minister [Netanyahu] held a historic meeting with the ruler of Sudan”, in reference to Burhan and not Hamdok. The meeting illustrates the uncertainty over who is in charge of foreign relations — the military or civilians. It is the Sovereign Council leader, for instance, who met Chad’s President Idriss Déby recently to discuss border security and trade issues.
With almost daily protests across Sudan, the timing to ease relations with Israel seems circumspect — especially given that many Sudanese may oppose such a diplomatic shift.
“If Sudan recognises Israel — this shows how much the government has changed, not just civilian but also military wings — it’s a break from the past and a powerful Islamist minority,” Hudson told Ayin. A partnership between the two countries could also encourage the US to lift Sudan from the state sponsor of terrorism list, encouraging greater international access to much-need aid, he added.
But not everyone is convinced closer relations with Israel will benefit the country, and some fear it may trigger a public backlash against the transitional government.
Sudan’s public both in and outside of the country are wary of a diplomatic deal with Tel Aviv — not least the roughly 6 500 Sudanese refugees in Israel. Of these, 4 500 have submitted requests for political asylum but are still pending a decision, according to the United Nations.
Many Sudanese fear improved diplomatic relations will lead to their forced return. “You always have the fear that one day some politician will want to get more votes at your expense and will send you and your children to a dangerous country, and everything you try to build will be destroyed,” one asylum seeker told the progressive Israeli daily Haaretz.
This report is published in collaboration with Ayin, an independent Sudanese media house. For their safety, journalists write anonymously