The Palestine issue was among the main focuses of the Sudanese foreign policy, yet, it did not enjoy the priority given to the neighboring countries and the Arab and international relations in general; and the US, China and the Gulf states, in particular. However, the Palestine support policy embraced by the successive Sudanese governments allowed Sudan to participate in important stages in the history of the Palestinian revolution, which was achieved through other countries, especially Egypt. Throughout different periods, Sudan’s positions were under the pretext of self-defense, given Israel’s repeated aggression on Sudanese sovereignty and its support of armed movements in southern and western Sudan.
The grinding economic crisis in Sudan and the harsh US sanctions have forced the new fragile political system to seek an escape through normalization with Israel. However, this normalization faces major obstacles due to the widespread popular opposition, as well as the opposition of the civilian component in the transitional government, at a time when the constitutional institutions had not been fully established in the country. This makes normalization partial and subject to gradual progress, based on the Sudanese regime’s response to the US-Israeli conditions.
First: Sudan’s Location on the Palestine Issue Map
On the Palestine issue map, Sudan can be described as an arena of external support, which has usually been done through an intermediary state. This is due to Egypt’s location, which is between Sudan and Palestine, and the Egyptian territorial waters, which separate Sudan from the southern Palestinian coast on the Red Sea. Sudan has provided political, diplomatic, military and security support, while its financial support was limited due to its economic poverty. Other important support was through education, by granting university and postgraduate education opportunities to hundreds of Palestinians annually, throughout different periods. Also, support was provided in the form of shelter, for Sudan has frequently received small Palestinian military and civilian waves.
Sudan has embraced direct support—without an intermediary—through rehabilitating and training Palestinian resistance, and smuggling of weapons by sea and land, via local tribal gangs, in the different stages of Sudan’s life, since the 1967 war.
Second: The Parties to the Palestinian Relation with Sudan
Sudan has opened its doors to the various levels of the official representation of the Palestinian parties. It recognized the legitimacy of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its Palestinian Authority (PA) after the Oslo Accords, where there is an old Palestinian embassy in Sudan. The Palestinian resistance was allowed to open offices under the cover of media, popular or research institutions, however, this was not based on a single philosophy, and the rules would change given the pressures exerted on Sudan, consequently, these offices have been closed repeatedly, permanently or partially. This relation flourished in some stages and developed into political and military support, and worsened and hit rock bottom at other stages, especially in the last four years of the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation (RCCNS), headed by Field Marshal ‘Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
Third: The RCCNS Stance Towards Normalization
Sudan remained classified among the axis of resistance throughout the RCCNS rule, and recurrently refused normalization. However, the issue of normalization began to be raised by some parties in the final years of the RCCNS. Whether the regime’s refusal to normalize was related to principled or political reasons, estimates have indicated that normalization had no benefits for Sudan. It would rather be a heavy burden on a country that already suffers from a great security and economic drain. This is especially so since Israel had classified it as a strategic enemy, for its location and relation with Egypt. The extremely hostile Israeli behavior has manifested itself in supporting rebel movements and inciting the US Jewish lobby against Sudan.
Fourth: Sudan’s Position in the Israeli Strategy
Since the beginning of the formation of the Israeli strategy during the term of former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Sudan has been targeted by Israel given its position in the strategic southern depth of Egypt. Thus, the Israeli trend has always been towards dismantling the relation of Sudan with Egypt, supporting civil wars and tearing Sudan apart into conflicting territories and regions. Thus, making Sudan a permanent hotbed of tension and concern for Egypt, in addition to weakening and preventing it from turning into an influential or central state within its African surroundings.
However, after the development of the Egyptian-Israeli relations during the term of President ‘Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Israeli strategy changed temporarily towards making Sudan a southern attraction site to the movement of Egyptian migration and work, should Egypt face any political collapse or general disaster. For Israel wants to prevent any pivot to the east, as was the case in most historical experiences. Israel has also been keen to make Sudan able to absorb the movement of displacement and migration in the event of the collapse of the densely populated Ethiopian state. For the Ethiopians have found it easier to migrate to Israel, which is closer to them than Europe and less expensive than illegal migration, and where they can claim that they are Falash Mura Jews. A third reason supposes that Sudan is able to absorb the African extremist movements coming from Central and West Africa, which enjoy flexibility, speed of movement, but could be easily penetrated by parties hostile to Israel and its Egyptian ally. Furthermore, these movements move in the desert according to a strong tribal protection system far from the influence of African countries.
This new strategy is still under serious discussion, for its implementation is based on the condition of demanding that Sudan becomes a US strategic center, by establishing a strategic US military base in eastern Sudan on the Red Sea for rapid intervention in Africa and the Middle East.
Fifth: Sudan’s Justifications for Normalization
Following the collapse of al-Bashir regime, Sudanese transitional policy has been characterized by extreme uncertainty and disputes between the military and civilian components of the constitutional declaration. The civilian component has many influencers and thinking platforms, and many differences within, given that it was a broad horizontal coalition that agreed on a common goal; to overthrow the regime. This has made the Sudanese politics so fragile that it had to seek support from its regional and international surroundings.
Notably, the greatest challenges facing the transition phase are:
1. The economy and the state’s weakness to provide people’s basic needs, including fuel, flour, medicine and other essential services.
2. The US sanctions, both at the executive and legislative levels, with the consequent international and economic isolation and economic collapse.
3. The peace and stability of the civil system, and the need to stop civil wars, in addition to controlling the armed movements and their many external links and references.
4. The unity of Sudan, protecting it from being torn apart into separate regions, and protecting some parts of it from being occupied by neighboring countries.
5. The survival and cohesion of the military establishment, and forbidding its dismantling and replacement.
6. The reconciliation and the assimilation of the forces of the former regime and the Islamists who participated in the Sudanese revolution, and allowing their participation in the political transformation.
The challenges facing the transitional phase; the intensity of the disagreement between its civil and military components and the inability of any party to resolve them; the reluctance of regional and major countries to align with one side at the expense of the other; and the poor relations with the US Congress, have all made the relationship with Israel a gateway to a positive relationship with the US administration. For it would accelerate its slow pace, ease the relationship with the House of Representatives and the Senate, and soften the position of the US Jewish anti-Sudan lobby, with the aim of lifting US sanctions on Sudan, scheduling debts and ensuring return to the global economic system.
It seems that the military component and part of the civilian component have reached out to Israel, however, the former was able to achieve faster results through a Sudanese military initiative via Uganda, away from the parties interfering in the Sudanese issue. The relation began with the Israeli military intelligence and then the Israeli prime minister’s office, and after about four months of negotiations and understandings on the bases of this relation, a public meeting took place in Uganda between the Sudanese Sovereign Council Chair Lieutenant General ‘Abdul Fattah al-Burhan and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, early February 2020. Notably, the Sudanese government headed by Abdullah Hamdok was not aware of this meeting before it was leaked by Israeli sources, thus the constitutional declaration partners ruling the transitional phase were shocked.
Sixth: The Position of the Sudanese Sides Regarding Normalization
The Sudanese military establishment was in favor of the Burhan-Netanyahu meeting, promoting it as an urgent interest with no other choice left. The forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change (FFC), however, expressed stark differences in their positions, where the Sudanese Umma Party together with the Baathist, Nasserist and Communist parties in addition to the Islamic parties, declared their rejection of this meeting and its repercussions. Other parties and movements supported the meeting, and so did most of the Sudanese armed movements, where most of which have been previously open to the relation with Israel. Although Prime Minister ‘Abdullah Hamdok seems to understand this relation and was trying to use it previously, the FFC pushed him to express neutrality in front of the Sudanese public, while clearly supporting it in his meetings with the US administration, as expressed in numerous statements by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Ultimately, Hamdok and the forces supporting him settled for supporting and participating in the normalization step.
Seventh: The Upcoming Normalization Levels
The public meeting between al-Burhan and Netanyahu was a clear political normalization that penetrated the previous state of rejection and boycott. It boldly broke the boycott barrier. Remarkably, the meeting triggered the following question: How will this relation develop?
The Sudanese military does not care much about the political aspect, for it knows that this aspect is neither within its powers nor with the powers of the transitional government; thus, dealing with it as part of the strategic challenges and subsequent needs. The military linked developing the relation with Israel on the latter’s pledge of developing the US-Sudanese relations, lifting sanctions on Sudan besides the US commitment not to support projects to dismantle the state and the army. The military believes that the high level of coordination between the two parties at the level of the specialized intelligence services and the first-tier officials in the specified files will be sufficient at this stage.
The Israeli side believes that the breakthrough has already occurred and that the powerful side in Sudan is convinced of the viability and importance of the relation whose development is a matter of time. However, Israel seems to be in a hurry to increase the areas of cooperation that have been agreed upon regarding the return of Sudanese refugees and the opening of Sudanese airspace for Israeli aircrafts, except for the “national” carrier El Al. Netanyahu also wants to invest in the electoral relationship in the first upcoming Israeli elections, and he is not keen to make this a third gift to Donald Trump after the normalization with the UAE and Bahrain, which made the US agree to separate—after Israel’s consent—between the normalization step and lifting the sanctions.
Sudanese officials believe that normalization is a compulsory path after international isolation and the blockage of all roads leading to the lifting of sanctions that have burdened Sudan for four decades. These sanctions have started with the decision of former President Jaafar Nimeiri to apply Islamic law in the early 1980s, and intensified with the beginnings of the rule of the National Salvation Revolution. Some strong and influential Sudanese parties believe that the normalization taking place is the result of US blackmail and a diminution of national sovereignty, and that there was no need for it after the Sudanese revolution and the overthrow of al-Bashir’s rule. They also believe that the price of lifting US sanctions has nothing to do with US-Sudanese relations, and that the Palestinian people has been exposed to the historical injustice of the Israeli occupation, and it is not the morality of revolutions to sympathize with colonialism, dictatorship and occupation or to establish interests with it at the expense of a brotherly people. In addition, these parties assert that current normalization shows that US sanctions were political because of Sudan’s position on Israel and that the lifting of sanctions was to allow Israel to establish normal relations with Sudan and to deepen its presence there without fear of the restrictions of the US embargo. They also perceive this normalization as a US-Israeli victory over Sudan, its history and principles, at a time when the Sudanese transitional leadership is unable to explain it to its people or be frank with them about its details.
The chances of success of political normalization seem weak in light of the conditions of the transitional government, which would not allow it to take such a crucial decision without popular support and legislative institutions bearing responsibility before the people. Popular forces opposing this decision will move against it, and will add it to the many justifications calling for the overthrow of this government and its symbols. Supporters of the former regime will also use normalization as a pretext to confirm their stance towards the new regime. They would accuse it of being hostile to Islam and Arabism, a Western project imposed on Sudan, and that normalization is used to keep the transitional regime alive, despite its economic death, failure to manage the country and dependence on foreign parties.
However, the most influential aspect that would make normalization succeed in its early stages is its ability to dismantle the grinding economic crisis and provide the necessities of life for the Sudanese citizen. Should the economic crisis prolong, the general environment that accepted this normalization will turn against it, and this seems to be the strongest possibility, because of the depth of the economic crisis in Sudan and the magnitude of the global economic crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, Israel is not able to provide Sudan with grants or large aid without a comfortable financial return, especially since Sudan is not like the rich Gulf countries which Israel strives to normalize relations with and relies on to get out of its economic crisis. Indeed, Sudan needs large financial levers that Israel cannot provide, and the US and Israeli enthusiasm for normalization with Sudan will diminish when other poor Arab countries join the process of normalization, which will increase the US-Israeli burden. Consequently, priorities will change after a short time, and Sudan will feel prejudiced as a result of the Israeli interest in the rich Gulf states at its expense.
One of the important aspects in this context is the stance of Egypt, the strong neighbor which considers itself the holder of moral jurisdiction over Sudan and the strategic decision-maker regarding its fate. In fact, Egypt is not happy with this normalization and does not consider it to its advantage, especially since the justifications of normalization is related to it in the first place. Notably, the development of the Sudanese-Israeli relation will be at the expense of Egypt and its influence and would undermine its role in Sudan. Thus, Egypt is expected to quickly re-establish its role after Sudan gets out of the US sanctions list. It will try to restore its role and replace Israel in communicating with the US administration regarding the management of the Sudanese file in the future.
Eighth: Future Scenarios
Scenarios of Sudanese-Israeli normalization can be summarized in the following:
1. First scenario: Partial normalization
In this scenario, the issues that were the basis for the meeting between al-Burhan and Netanyahu would be the scope of work until the end of the transitional period. Thus, there would not be full political normalization or opening of embassies or direct diplomatic representation. Maybe, there would be unstable technical presence to which the Sudanese government might resort through the agreement on normalization, while delaying its approval until the legislative system is established.
2. Second scenario: Full normalization
This is what the US administration insists on and what the Netanyahu government is looking forward to. Indeed, Washington is pressing hard to reach this level through political blackmail related to the multiple levels of US sanctions, especially those related to congressional sanctions. Thus, some sanctions might be lifted and others kept so that they would be lifted gradually based on Sudanese compliance.
3. Third scenario: Freezing the normalization project
There are still basic sides within the FFC and major parties that reject normalization, and consider what happened an unacceptable transgression by the government and the military leadership, as they do not have a mandate from the people or the FFC central committee. In addition, the Islamic forces and their allies, which have been active recently against the backdrop of the economic decline, are expected to escalate their opposition rhetoric and mobilize the street against this normalization.
When weighing the possibilities, it is difficult to talk about full normalization, especially in the transitional phase and with the incomplete constitutional institutions in Sudan. Therefore, normalization most probably would be partial and subject to freezing, whether due to the escalation of opposition against it, or since its economic impact on the lives of the Sudanese is weak .
Ninth: The Impact of Normalization on the Palestine Issue
It can be said that Sudan, in its current transitional situation, has no influence on the Palestine issue, after it had played an important role of enhancing the issue’s political and security presence in the region. This would be a continuation of a previous situation, in which the relation with the official Palestinian side, as well as, the opposition, declined to very normal levels, and perhaps to harmful ones, from a security perspective. For Sudan wants to strengthen its security relation with the US. However, this normalization would anger various Palestinian sides, because it came at a time when important Arab countries have withdrawn from the Arab initiative, which linked normalization to the return of refugees and the establishment of the Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital. This means that the PA has lost a new Arab stance without this being positively reflected on its demands formulated by the Arab countries. In addition, the Palestinian resistance has lost an important support arena, which will urge it to search for new spheres to meet its needs that would not necessarily pass through the semi-official coordination, as was the case previously.
It seems that the Israeli authorities will be keen to benefit from the Sudanese experience in dealing with the Palestinian resistance and its network of relations with it. This relation may turn into an opportunity for Sudan, to reconnect with the Palestinians with Israeli-US approval, hence it would play a conciliatory role or be an open back channel, far from the Egyptian interventions clinging tightly to this file. This could lead to limited development of the relation with some of the Palestinian resistance parties, which need other back doors for non-politicized communication with the US and the Israelis, in some slow or stalled files.
In general, Sudan’s exit from the support scene of the Palestine issue will cause great moral damage to this issue, but would not have a significant impact on it. For the relation with the Palestinians has not turned into a strong comprehensive alliance, despite the strength of friendship and cooperation relations. Also, the level of cooperation has often depended on US pressure on Sudan and the latter’s responsiveness. Ultimately, the relation between Sudan and the Palestinian resistance was frequently shaken and disrupted, but would flourish after any Israeli targeting of Sudan or following a strong Israeli military campaign against Palestine, and then it soon would return to its normal levels.
It is unlikely for the political relation with the PA to change because of this normalization, as Sudan will continue to assert that this normalization would not affect its principled position on the rights of the Palestinian people and the call for the implementation of United Nations resolutions, which is the language shared by all sides who have initiated normalization.
Sudanese normalization was not a demand or a choice, rather a necessity and a response to pressures, or perhaps it was the employment of foreign programs in the context of revolutionary change, accompanied by US blackmail. Major forces in the government and the opposition still reject normalization, considering it a diminution of national sovereignty and believing that it must be eliminated. This means that there is an opportunity for Palestinians to continue communicating with the Sudanese forces at all levels, stabilize some of the existing interests in Sudan, restore some of what was lost during previous years, reconnect with parties and popular forces, whose supporting role to the Palestine issued could be enhanced. There should also be efforts to confront normalization in the media and via political means, and show its dangers to Sudan in the medium and long terms. There should be warning against the activities of normalization forces and their external agendas, making it clear that the development of Sudanese-US relations does not necessarily mean Sudan’s involvement in normalization and its dangerous risks and heavy burdens on Sudanese national security and strategic interests. With this said, it should be taken into account that Sudan is still under US legislative sanctions, and the way might be long before these sanctions are lifted in full.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Dr. Osama al-Ashqar for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.