US Presses Sudan to Normalize Relations with Israel

The Trump Administration is holding up the removal of Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) list because it wants Khartoum to establish diplomatic ties with Israel before the US presidential election in November. The aim is to tout another foreign policy “success.” This pressure has exacerbated divisions in Sudan between the civilian transitional government and the military hierarchy, with the former stating that the issue of normalizing relations with Israel is too sensitive to be taken up now without a broad public consensus and the latter showing eagerness for it because of supposed benefits that would likely accrue to its institution. The American pressure campaign on Sudan is being aided by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which favors the Sudanese military and is eager to show Washington that it can do its bidding in the region—perhaps in an effort to bolster the UAE’s chances of receiving the much-coveted F-35 aircraft and to further diffuse Palestinian anger over Abu Dhabi’s decision regarding ties with Israel.

Sudan’s Fragile Political and Economic Situation

This pressure campaign comes at a very delicate time in Sudan’s modern history. After many years of authoritarian rule by Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir, a popular uprising, ultimately backed by the Sudanese military, overthrew him in April 2019. However, relations between the civilian protest leaders and the military were strained from the start; the military cracked down hard the following summer on protesters who were demanding genuine democratic change, which led to more than one hundred civilian deaths. With the aid of outside mediators, a delicate three-year power-sharing arrangement was reached in August 2019 whereby a civilian transitional government would be created under the former World Bank economist, Abdalla Hamdok, as prime minister. Concurrently, a Transitional Sovereign Council, made up of six civilians and five military officers, would be formed and led by General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan for the first 21 months, followed by a civilian in that role for the remaining 18 months. Given that the Sudanese military has maintained its strong position in the polity and operates without any civilian oversight, it is considered the real power in the country, though Hamdok has done his best to try to move the country in a democratic direction.

In addition to these tense military-civilian relations, Sudan has had to deal with protracted negotiations with rebel groups from the peripheral areas of the country, which were engaged in a long conflict with the Bashir government. The country also suffers from a highly distressed economy. Although the good news is that most rebel groups, which had coalesced into an umbrella group called the Sudan Revolutionary Front, reached an agreement with the Sudanese government in late August 2020 to lay down their arms in return for political representation and autonomy for their regions, the economy continues to bedevil Sudanese leaders. Inflation this past spring was running at an annualized rate of 99 percent and Sudan’s foreign debt is at least $62 billion. Moreover, a very bad flood in September 2020 adversely affected over 500,000 of its citizens, while over nine million people (out of a total Sudanese population of 45 million) are classified by the United Nations as “food insecure.”

Although Hamdok has been fairly successful in obtaining a significant amount of humanitarian aid(which is allowed under the SST designation) from the United States and the international community, this assistance falls far short of what Sudan needs to help its hard-pressed population.

US Moving the Goal Posts

American policy-makers welcomed the political change in Khartoum in 2019 because of Bashir’s previous association with al-Qaeda in the 1990s (which led to placing Sudan on the State Department’s SST list), his role in mounting a genocidal campaign in the country’s western province of Darfur in the early 2000s, and his ties to Hamas and Iran—though he severed relations with the latter in 2016. Moreover, the Sudanese civilian protest leaders who coalesced under the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) coalition came from the educated middle class, spoke of democratic aspirations, and did not harbor extremist views, all of which was reassuring to Washington.

But the albatross around Sudan’s neck is the SST designation, which both Sudanese civilians and the military want removed. As long as this designation remains, Sudan is not able to obtain loans from international financial institutions, reschedule its large debt, or attract foreign investors. Good progress between American and Sudanese officials was achieved by mid-summer 2020 when it appeared that a deal on removing the SST designation was within sight. Sudan reportedly agreed to pay $335 million to the victims and relatives of the 1998 East Africa US embassy bombings, and the State Department was pressing members of Congress to accept the deal.

However, following successful US negotiations with some Gulf Arab states about establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, which ultimately led to the signing of the “Abraham Accords” on the White House lawn on September 15, the Trump team eyed Sudan as a possible next Arab state to follow suit, especially because it was in a weak position to resist outside pressure. In other words, by holding the removal of the SST designation hostage to whether Sudan establishes formal ties with Israel, the Trump Administration upped the ante in the diplomatic game. The Trump team apparently had no compunction about using Sudan, a poor country teetering on the brink, to achieve a political goal that would deflect attention from the administration’s failure to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. In addition, it aimed to help Trump’s bid for a second presidential term by scoring another so-called diplomatic “win” that would chiefly benefit Israel, thus pleasing his political base.

The UAE’s Involvement

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have been significant financial supporters of Sudan in recent years, but their sympathies are with the Sudanese military, which they hope will remain dominant in large part to limit a so-called “democratic contagion” that could possibly affect their own countries. UAE officials nonetheless invited Hamdok for talks in September, a meeting also attended by Trump Administration officials, presumably to come to an agreement on establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in return for the UAE’s help in paying the $335 million compensation package and, possibly, to provide Sudan with additional financial assistance as well as removal from the SST list.

Hamdok balked at the proposed deal because he believed that such a significant step as establishing diplomatic ties with Israel before there is a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would upset the Sudanese public at large and not just Islamists; such a move could potentially topple his government and end Sudan’s democratic experiment. Moreover, the price that was reportedly offered at the UAE meeting—less than $1 billion from the United States, the UAE, and Israel combined, and much of it in fuel credits and investments, not cash—was a disappointment to Sudan.

Furthermore, there was something unsavory in the minds of many Sudanese about the idea of holding up the removal of the SST designation in return for ties with Israel. One anonymous Sudanese official was quoted as saying that the linkage was “pure blackmail” and that the Trump Administration was “undermining the transitional government.” It is now apparent that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Khartoum in late August 2020, to which he ascribed great symbolism because he flew directly from Israel to Sudan, did not pave the way for any breakthrough on the issue of normalizing relations with Israel.

From the UAE’s perspective, having Sudan follow it and Bahrain in establishing ties to Israel could lessen the criticism in the Arab world of its own normalization with Israel, particularly from Palestinians, especially as Sudan has long supported the Palestinian cause and hosted the symbolically important Khartoum summit conference in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Indeed, at this summit the Arab leaders pledged “no” to peace or negotiations with Israel or to recognition of the state.

UAE officials undoubtedly hope that pressing Sudan to establish diplomatic ties with Israel would also ingratiate them even more with the Trump Administration and lessen the opposition to their desire to purchase advanced F-35 aircraft from the United States.  Many Israeli security officials and their supporters believe such a purchase would diminish Israel’s “qualitative military edge” in the region and could pose a threat down the road despite its current friendly ties to the UAE. For UAE officials, the fighter jet acquisition seems to be a top priority that they do not want to lose.

Congressional Opposition on Compensation Package Complicates Matters

If this pressure from the Trump Administration and the UAE were not daunting enough, Sudan is now facing opposition in Congress to the compensation deal from two influential members, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York and the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey. Both represent constituents who were victims of the 9/11 attacks in New York City. They are reportedly unhappy with the tentative $335 million compensation package that US diplomats worked out with Hamdok over the summer because the families of a small group of 9/11 victims believe that if Khartoum were somehow involved in the 1998 embassy bombings as well as the attack against the USS Cole in 2000 (by supporting al-Qaeda at the time), then it must be responsible to some degree for the loss of their family members as well, even if the evidence is dubious. The deal that was worked out this past summer between Hamdok and the State Department would protect Sudan from future claims.

Internal Sudanese Dynamics

It appears that Sudan’s leaders are divided on the issue of establishing diplomatic ties with Israel in exchange for economic aid and removal from the SST list. The Sudanese military at this point supports the deal because it hopes to benefit from it and believes it will not be on the table indefinitely. General Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, leader of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces, has stated that “whether we like [the deal] or not” the removal of Sudan from the SST “is tied to” the establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel. He added that Israel is a “developed country and the whole world is working with it” and “we will have benefits from such relations.”

It should be noted that the head of the Transitional Sovereign Council, General Burhan, met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Uganda in February 2020 without informing Hamdok and other civilian leaders. Israel reportedly wants such relations to develop not only for the symbolism that they bring but also to obtain intelligence on radical groups in the region, which Sudan is believed to have gathered over the years and which could come from a liaison relationship Israel would develop with the Sudanese military. It is not known if Israel has dangled economic and military aid in front of Sudan’s generals outside of what was offered at the meeting in the UAE in September.

The current, favorable disposition of Sudan’s military hierarchy toward Israel has further  strained relations between Sudanese civilian and military leaders and has put Hamdok in a tight spot. Whether he can resist this internal pressure from the military is an open question. Although he keenly wants the SST designation lifted, he does not want to spark an upheaval by accepting such a controversial deal. He may be overruled by the generals, however.

Recommendations for US Policy

The Trump Administration’s linkage of delisting Sudan from the SST in exchange for establishing diplomatic relations with Israel is not only short-sighted but smacks of foreign policy blackmail, made more odious by pressuring a poor and dependent country into taking a risky political step that could undermine its own civilian authority, one that is trying to develop a democracy. Moreover, in political terms, the linkage is likely to be inconsequential for Trump’s supporters in the United States; they already know that the American president is in sync with Netanyahu’s agenda. Adding one more Arab country to the list of those having diplomatic relations with Israel is not going to change the election dynamics in the United States at this point, and it gives the impression to the outside world that the reelection of a US president is all that matters, even if it comes at the expense of not helping a fledgling democracy faced with myriad economic problems.

Should former Vice President Joe Biden win the presidency, he and his team would do well to separate the SST designation from the Israeli issue and deal with Sudan on its own merits. They should also impress upon Senate Democrats, Schumer and Menendez, that the deal that was struck between the State Department and Hamdok over the summer was the most a poor country like Sudan could afford. Moreover, Sudan’s current leadership should not be held indefinitely to account for the sins of the Bashir regime. Biden is said to want a convening of a “summit of democracies” shortly after he becomes president, should he win; to be sure, bolstering the civilian authorities in Sudan, not undermining them, would seem to be in line with this type of policy.