Sudan Denies It’s Talking Peace with Israel, Fires Spokesperson
Retired Israeli diplomat insists normalization ‘will happen’ – adding it’s not the first time matter is discussed in Khartoum
Sudan’s Foreign Ministry fired its spokesperson on Wednesday for indicating – rather enthusiastically – that the country was holding peace talks with Israel. Nevertheless, a former senior Israeli diplomat says normalization is still a real possibility.
Sudanese spokesperson Haidar Badawi Sadiq said during an interview with Sky News Arabia on Tuesday that he saw “no reason [for Sudan] to continue hostility” toward the Jewish state.
“We don’t deny that there are communications,” he said, also describing as “bold and courageous” last week’s announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates were normalizing ties.
Later on Tuesday, Sudan’s acting foreign minister, Omar Qamar al-Din Ismail, issued a statement saying: “The Foreign Ministry was astonished to see the statements of Amb. Haider Badawi Sadiq, the ministry’s spokesman, about Sudan’s attempt to establish relations with Israel. These statements have created an ambiguous situation that needs clarification.”
Sadiq’s remarks amounted to an embarrassing diplomatic incident seen in Khartoum as having the potential to put a damper on the country’s relations with its Muslim allies. But normalization is “definitely going to happen, sooner or later,” says Chaim Koren, who served as Israeli ambassador to South Sudan.
“This is hard for [Sudan], after so many years of hostile relations [with Israel], but they don’t have much choice. Sure, they’re dancing this tango now, taking one step forward and one step back, but they’ve been talking for some months [with Israel]. They’re definitely preparing for this move,” he tells The Media Line.
This is hard for [Sudan], after so many years of hostile relations [with Israel], but they don’t have much choice
“Sometime between now and the [US presidential] election in November, [Sudan] will have to overcome differences inside its government and reach a decision,” Koren says.
Following Sadiq’s remarks, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi published tweets of encouragement, touting the Sudanese spokesperson’s words as a “substantial change” in the region and promising to “do whatever is necessary to turn this vision into reality.”
Koren says that in Khartoum, talk about peace with Israel is not entirely new.
“Look, talks about normalization started back in [ousted president Omar] al-Bashir’s time,” notes Koren, who, following his posting to South Sudan, served as ambassador to Egypt. “But this time it’s serious. Sudan desperately needs to solve its economic problems and, most importantly, pull itself out of the US ‘State Sponsors of Terrorism’ list…. There is almost a condition set by [the US] that says if [Sudan] wants Washington to take it seriously, they have to pass through Jerusalem first.”
Relations between Israel and Sudan witnessed a significant thaw in February after Netanyahu and Sudanese transitional government head Abdel Fattah al-Burhan met in Uganda and agreed to discuss normalization. The same day, Burhan was invited by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for an official visit to Washington, the first by a Sudanese leader in more than 30 years.
Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee and chief Palestinian negotiator, tells The Media Line that the US is exerting its power to force Arab countries to establish relations with Israel before rewarding them. He holds up Sudan as an example.
“You want to be off the terrorist list, you must meet Netanyahu,” Erekat says.
You want to be off the terrorist list, you must meet Netanyahu
But inner conflicts in the Khartoum transitionary coalition might prove to be larger obstacles to peace with Israel than expected.
“The Sudanese government is composed of two major, rather opposed, factions,” explains Irit Back, head of African studies at Tel Aviv University.
“There’s the old guard, mostly military generals, who want to preserve their positions of power, and then there are the civilian representatives, people who led the  revolution – women, members of parliament from the periphery towns,” she tells The Media Line.
“It seems the new government is slightly more open to relations with the Western world, but there is a real battle for power within,” she states.
It seems the new government is slightly more open to relations with the Western world, but there is a real battle for power within
Back calls the establishment of official relations with Israel by Khartoum a “complex issue that can really destabilize a fragile situation in Sudan.”
Says Back: “Israel was for years considered an enemy state by Sudan. Add to that the fact that Israel allied with South Sudan [in its fight for independence from the north] and you can see why they are so careful. I don’t know why [Israeli officials] had to ‘kiss and tell,’ but that certainly doesn’t help.”
Prior to his firing and following his ministry’s backtracking, Sadiq released a statement of his own, explaining that he had based his remarks on similar statements made by Israeli Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen on Tuesday morning.
Sadiq explained that he had not seen anyone in his own government deny Cohen’s claim of imminent bilateral normalization, and therefore felt he could confirm them publicly. By early Wednesday, however, it was apparent that these clarifications were not enough, and Sadiq was let go.
“Sudan has an interest in establishing relations with Israel,” says Back. “They’re mainly seeking international support, which they hope will lead to the lifting of sanctions and embargos.”
Koren believes that rank and file Sudanese have no problem with Israel.
“Most of the population is young, like the rest of the Middle East and Africa,” he says. “They didn’t experience a war with Israel, and they have no real hostility toward it.”
As for Jerusalem’s interest in a historic deal, Back points to several areas in which Israel stands to gain.
“First of all, it’s a recognition of Israel by a former enemy state; that’s huge,” she says.
“Also, Sudan is close to us geographically, part of our strategic security considerations. There’s a lot of activity that Israel sees as terrorist activity in that area around Sudan – in Chad, Mali, Niger – that may be diminished. There is also an interest in preventing Iran, Turkey and others from gaining a foothold in Africa,” she explains.
“The problem is, nobody knows what the Israeli policy is because it changes by the minute,” Back notes.
“There isn’t a real set approach toward Africa. The political situation here [in Israel] and there is so unclear, that one can’t tell what will happen tomorrow morning,” she says.
Koren believes it is merely a matter of patience.
“The stability of their government – and, frankly, ours too – means it will take a bit more time,” he notes. “But it will happen.”