In the diplomatic history of Israel, 2020 would perhaps be remembered as a watershed year in its relations with Arab countries with United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Sudan establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. It has taken more than a quarter of a century for Israel to make new official friends in the region, after itformalised its tieswith Jordan in 1993.
It appears that more Arab countries might follow the current diplomatic trajectory of normalizing relations with Israel. A statement attributed to outgoing President Trump extensively reported in the Arab media before the US Presidential election stated that“Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Morocco, Niger and Oman are expected to normalise relations with Israel, as a gift to Donald Trump over his possible victory in the next US election”.[i]President elect Biden has not commented on more countries normalizing relations with Israel but has welcomed speedy normalisation. The countries named by President Trump in the report have themselves hinted about normalising relations with Israel in many different ways. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu too has remarked more than once that many Arab countries are moving to formalise their relationship with Israel.[ii]After the diplomatic rapprochement of the UAE and Bahrain with Israel in August, Sudan became the third Arab nation this year to establish its diplomatic tieswith Israel with an official statement on October 23, 2020.
This new wave, particularly with Sudan, is seen as a great turnaround because it was Sudan which had hosted theimportant Arab League Summit that adopted the three NOs in 1967: No peace with Israel, No recognition of Israel and No negotiation with Israel[iii] following the Arab defeat in 1967 war. Sudan expects to gain a lot from this new relationship and President Trump has ordered the removal of Sudan from the list of “state sponsors of terrorism”[iv]. But apprehensionsremain about the success of the initiativegiven the current political turmoil in Sudan and the transitional nature of its regime.
Genealogy of the Present: From the Deal of the Century to Abraham Accord
President Trump’s tenure in the White House initiateda new geopolitics in the region seeking three major objectives: first, to declare Iran as an enemy state of all, secondpromote rapprochement between Israel and Arab countries and third to extend all out support to Israel regardless of the past US positions on the two-state solution. He entered the White House with one of his foreign policy objectives beingresolving the Arab-Israel conflict forever through his much-talked-about ‘Deal of the Century’.[v]
In pursuit of this objective, President Trump chose the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as his first foreign destination to visit after becoming the President. In thevisit to Riyadh in May 2017, he addressed Arab-Islamic leaders from across the world and singled out Iran for fuelling the fire of sectarianism and called upon Gulf countries to drive out the extremists and terrorists.[vi] The overriding goal was to create an anti-Iran alliance of Sunni world which would be gradually joined by US and Israel. His next move, signalling his open-ended support to Israel, was a unilateral announcement of shifting the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in December, 2017. This finally happened in May 2018. This was followed by Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu visitingOmanin October 2018, supposedly a neutral country in the regional conflict, and he had acomprehensive dialogue with late king Qaboos.[vii]
In its pursuit of an anti-Iran and pro-Israel policy, the US called a high-level meeting known as The Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw in February 2019.” The Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo was more explicit when he remarked that, “It is impossible to achieve peace in the region without confronting Iran”.[viii] President Trump’s initiatives yielded some desirable outcome at Warsaw whenthe Foreign Minister of Yemen was seen sitting beside Netanyahu and there was an open embrace between Omani Foreign Minister and the Israeli Prime Minister. In the frozen terrain of Arab-Israeli relations, these optical departures are very significant.Later, Netanyahu tweeted that Warsaw meeting was a historic turning point for him to stand along with the new Arab leaders in face of Iran’s growing threat.[ix]
In continuation of theefforts to mobilise the Arab leaders in favour of the Deal of the Century, another meeting was organised by the US and hosted by Bahrain’s Crown Prince in June 2019 to unveil the economic components of the Deal. The Summit was attended by over 300 delegates from thirty countries including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Greece.[x] A US$ 50 billion economic package was announced for Palestine with the purpose of doubling the size of Palestinian economy. While many in the region showed an enthusiasm towards this huge economic package, it was completely boycotted by all political factions in Palestine.
The visit of Israeli officials to UAE in December 2019 to sign an agreementfor participating in the prestigious Expo 2020 to be held in Dubai[xi]. As a consequence of years of lobbying, wooing and coercing, the Abraham Accord[xii]was also agreed upon, ushering in a new chapter in the history of Israel-Arab relationship. On September 15, 2020 an elaborate ceremony was held in the White House to sign the historic Abraham Accord in the presence of the foreign ministers of UAE and Bahrain, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and US President Trump. By signing the accord, Bahrain and UAE became the third and fourth countries after Egypt and Jordan to formalise diplomatic ties with Israel. The mission that had begun with the ‘Deal of the Century’ ended with the Abraham Accord andthree NOs ofthe Arab world ofthe past were buried.
How it all began for Sudan
It would not be wrong to assume that after Iran, Sudan was next Pariah state in the region givenits support to the Hamas, Jihad-al-Islami and Hezbollah, its suspected role in the attack on World Trade Centre in the US in 1993, in failed assassination attempt onPresident Mubarak of Egypt in 1995, and finally the presence of Osama Bin Laden in 1990s in Sudan[xiii], in addition to attacks on US missions in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998.The daunting yet the most desirable objective for the new regime in Sudan was removal from the list of ‘State Sponsoring Terrorism’ where it was placed for more than two decades by the US. Prime Minster Hamdouk of Sudan had expressed his desire more than once to have the sanctions lifted. After its successes with UAE and Bahrain, US pressurized Sudan to make its own declaration of relationship with Israel in conjunction with its negotiation for removal from the terror list. The chairman of the Sovereignty Council Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan was keen for ties with Israel regardless of its linkages with the removal form the terror list, while Prime Minister Hamdouk was not in favour of normalising relations with Israel being contingent upon removal from the terror list.[xiv]Such efforts were made in the past as well, for instance in 2016 Israel had promised Sudan to help, provided Sudan ended its relationship with Iran.[xv]Secret negotiations between Israel and Sudan began in February 2020 when Burhan made a secret visit to Uganda and met Prime Minister Netanyahu and both pledged to work for normalisation.[xvi] Apart from normalisation of ties, the meeting was also aimed at the removal of Sudan from the terror list.
The Burhan-Netanyahu meeting was followed by the visit of the US Secretary of State Pompeo to Sudan in August 2020 to push the agenda of the previous meeting. It was the first visit of a US Secretary of State to Sudan in fifteen years after that of Condoleezza Rice in 2005.[xvii]Both sides(Sudan and Israel) made a public announcement of their relationship on October 23, 2020. The joint statement made no mention of exchange of ambassadors or opening missions in each other’s country.[xviii]
The absence of any plan to open the missions seems to be due to fear of people’s backlash, as many have already disputed the agreementdue to the transitional nature of the regime. Both the National Consensus Forces, one of the important factions in ‘Forces of Freedom and Change’ and Sudanese People’s Congress Party, a pro-Bashir Islamist group have condemned the agreement. A veteran Islamist leader and head of the Ummah party, Al-Mehdi threatened to withdraw support from the coalition and termed it an act committed outside the jurisdiction of the transitional government.[xix]
To dispel the fears and resentment, Sudanese foreign minister, Omar Qamar-Al-Din has already declared that agreement would not come into effect without parliamentary ratification.[xx] Meanwhile many in the government are not averse to its implementation as Sudanese Justice Minister Nasruddeen Al-Bari remarked that no provision in the interim constitutional declaration (signed in February 2019 between the Transitional Military Council and the Opposition Forces) is hostile to relationships with Israel and later added that foreign policy cannot remain hostage to the ideological convictions but is determined by national interests.[xxi]
What does the Agreement mean for Sudan and Israel?
In recent years, no diplomatic move can be more surprising than the recognition of Israel by Sudan given their past relationship. Israel was not only among the first to recognise the independence of Southern Sudan but was very helpful in the division of the Sudan by training the rebel forces.[xxii]
The overwhelming sense of triumph in Israelcan be gauged from the statement of Prime Minster Netanyahu when he said “Israel is now changing the map of the Middle East and now Israel is in contact with entire world”.[xxiii]He also termed the agreementas good for heart, pocket and security of Israel.[xxiv] The Intelligence Minister of Israel, Eli Cohen termed the deal as a testimony to the historical transformation underwayin the Arab world and was recognition of Israel’s economic and military strength.[xxv]Apart from finding a new ally in Africa, the agreement would, no doubt, be a source of strategic depth for Israel and now it might be difficult for countries in the region to overlook Israel’spresence while laying down any security or strategic blueprint. For instance, Israel can now emerge as a new stakeholder in the Nile Water dispute among Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia as Israel is already supportive of Ethiopia. The presence of Nile in Sudan can help Israel to perpetuate its mythological dictum of ‘Greater Israel’ further,according to which the boundary of Israel extends from Nile to Euphrates.[xxvi]
Israel is a beneficiary of many railway, maritime, oil and gas pipeline projects with the collaboration of Jordan and UAE in the Red Sea and Mediterranean.[xxvii]The entry of Sudan can serve the economic and military interest of Israel further and establish Israel as an uncontested leader in the region. One of the major but unnoticed components of the agreement is deportation of around 150,000 Sudanese of different origin back to Sudan, who had come to Israel in 1960s-70s, as they are conceived to be a threat to Jewish identity of the Israeli state.This would be a fulfilment of decades–old demands of Israel. As a reward, Sudan has already received five million tons of wheat from Israel.[xxviii]
By winning over Sudan, Israel has been able to remove one of the staunchest allies of Palestine in the region. Sudan has been accused of being crossing point for the supply of weapons to Palestine radical groups via the Sinai Peninsula and Israel has very often bombed several such sites there. Now Israel can complete the construction of a safety cordon in the Red Sea including Egypt, Jordan, South Sudan and Saudi Arabia. It can also control terrorist activities as well as those being hostile to its interests in areas bordering Sudan such as, Mali, and Niger.Additionally, Israel has removed Sudan form Iran’s strategic orbit.[xxix] Under the new deal, Sudan has agreed to list the Hezbollah as a terror group, a major strategic success for Israel.[xxx] The diplomatic conjunction of Israel with Bahrain, UAE and Sudan is also being seen as an expansion of Israel-led Sunni coalition to counter the growing influence of Iran and Turkey. Perhaps the effort to create a Sunni-led coalition against Iran first enunciated during the visit of President Trump to Saudi Arabia in 2017 is yielding some benefit now.
As far as Sudan is concerned, it will get rid of its past legacy, marked by decades of economic hardships and political isolation on account of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Sudanese Foreign Minister, referring to the agreement, said that it would bring substantial economic and political benefits to the country.[xxxi] He also saidthat the agreement would bring economic investments and become a source of political and diplomatic dividends.[xxxii] According to an estimate, Sudan was paying around US$ 1.5-2 billion annually to trade intermediaries, particularly in theUAE, for its imports to evade US sanctions.[xxxiii] The rapprochement with Israel will allow the devastated economy of Sudan to recover by focusing more on agriculture and external economic assistance. Many foreign companies would come to Sudan to invest in the market and Sudan would be eligible for loans from global institutions. Sudan can also now establish ports on Red Sea with the help of the US and Israel in order to become an outlet and transit point for goods from other African countries like Southern Sudan, Chad, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Central Africa.[xxxiv] According to a report, the lifting of sanctions would relieve the country of US$ 60 billion of past debt including US$ 3 billion US loans.[xxxv] The US has already promised economic aid worth US$ 81 million to assist inhumanitarian programs.[xxxvi]
An official statement from Sudan said that in the coming weeks both sides would hold a comprehensive dialogue about cooperation in fields of agriculture, trade, commerce and aviation.[xxxvii] Both the US and Israel have committed themselves to assist Sudan in improving its food security.Sudan could be a great beneficiary of the experience of Israeli in the field of agriculture and technology. Israel is world-known for its advanced agricultural technology, particularly in the field of seeds production and Sudan needs this technology for enhancing its agricultural production. [xxxviii] Sudan can also benefit from Israel’s developed water technology, a water deficit country. It can also seek Israeli assistance in the field of technology, cyber security and fight against piracy and other illegal activities.
Sudan is also likely to receive major economic aid from countries like UAE and Saudi Arabia. The foreign minister of UAE has already welcomed the move and said that this new deal would enhance the prospect of economic, political, diplomatic and security cooperation with Sudan.[xxxix] There are unconfirmed reports that Saudi Arabia has paid the amount worth US$ 350 million[xl] on behalf of Sudan as compensation for victims of the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.[xli]
Given the transitory nature of the governmentin Sudan, the absence ofconsensus among the political factions over the agreement and resentment on the street, it makesit difficult to predict in any definite manner about its success. However, there is no doubt that if implemented, the agreement would be of significant advantage to Sudan both economically and politically. The agreementis another manifestation of political realism and pragmatism in the region and Sudan seems to be no exception to it. However the consensus views of the country as a whole remains to be tested.As far as Israel is concerned, Sudan is an important additionto the list of countries thatnow recognises it. Given the unprecedented pace of the current diplomatic trajectory in favour of Israel, one can foresee many more countries in the region opening up to Israel very soon and that would strengthen both the Israeli and Arab fronts. But this would come at the cost of Palestine which has lost ground evenbefore the current race for normalising relationship with Israel began.In addition, given the past seven decades of US-Israel-Arab/Palestine diplomatic and political trajectory, we should not however expect visible shift to this template even after the exit of PresidentTrump.
*Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Discliamer : The views expressed are personal
[ii]Israeli permanent representative to UN, Ambassador Danny Danon in a tweet https://twitter.com/dannydanon/status/1319567825560895489?s=03Accessed on October 29, 2020
[v]It is a peace plan proposed by the US administration to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict.
[xi]The Expo 2020 was later to be cancelled because of the COVID-19.
[xii]The formalisation of relationship between UAE and Israel has been officially titled the Abraham Accords Peace Agreement: Treaty of Peace, Diplomatic Relations and Full Normalisation Between the United Arab Emirates and the State of Israel while the agreement between Bahrain and Israel has been officially called the Abraham Accord: Declaration of Peace. The treaty talks about realizing the vision of a Middle East that is stable, prosperous and peaceful for all the States and people in the region. The Accord talks about establishing peace and diplomatic relationship and full normalisation of ties between them and their people. The agreement specifically focuses on the common ancestry of Arab and Jews and in that spirit, it inspire to foster in a Middle East a reality in which Muslims, Jews, Christians and people of all faiths , beliefs and nation live and are committed to spirit of coexistence.
[xiii]Abu Hurairah Abdurrahman, Impact of Jewish Lobby in US and across the World,Al-Taghyeer, A Sudanese Arabic Daily, October 24, 2020,Accessed https://bit.ly/3jzxxhe October 29, 2020
[xxii]Hiba Jamal-al-Deen, Israel and Sudan from Bernard Lewis to United States of Sudan: Another Chapter of Deal of the Century, Arab Centre for Research and Studies, April 20, 2020, Accessed https://bit.ly/3e4cfHkMay 23, 2020
[xxvi]Hiba Jamal-al-Deen, Israel and Sudan from Bernard Lewis to United States of Sudan: Another Chapter of Deal of the Century, Arab Centre for Research and Studies, April 20, 2020, Accessed https://bit.ly/3e4cfHkMay 23, 2020