Netanyahu, Sudanese Leader Meet in Uganda, Agree to Start Normalizing Ties

After speculation and years of reports, it has been cleared for publication that Israel and the African country are formalizing relations ■ Israeli sources: Move could help Israel in efforts to deport asylum seekers

Collage of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, January 23, 2020 and Sudan's Abdel Fatah al-Burhan, Khartoum, August 17, 2019
Kobi Gideon/GPO // Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the chief of Sudan's Sovereignty Council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, met in Uganda on Monday evening and agreed to start normalizing ties between Sudan and Israel. 

Immediately after the meeting, the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement: "It has been agreed to start a cooperation that will lead to normalizing the ties between the countries."

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Netanyahu's bureau also stated that "Prime Minister Netanyahu believes that Sudan is moving in a positive direction, and the prime minister has expressed his outlook to the American secretary of state. The head of Sudan's Sovereignty Council is interested in helping his country go through a process of modernization by taking it out of isolation and placing it on the map."

After the news broke, Netanyahu tweeted in Hebrew: "I met in Entebbe with the head of Sudan's Sovereignty Council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and we agreed to start a cooperation that would lead to normalization of ties between the two countries. History!"

Al-Burhan came to Uganda especially in order to meet with the Israeli premier, who is there for a day-long diplomatic visit. The meeting between the two leaders lasted for two hours. 

A senior Sudanese military official said the meeting was orchestrated by the United Arab Emirates and aimed at helping to remove the terror listing, which dates back to the 1990s, when Sudan briefly hosted Osama bin Laden and other wanted militants.

An Israeli source said that the development is immediately expected to affect the route of flights from Israel and enable aircrafts to fly over the African country, a development that had already been floated as early as 2018

Head of the PLO Monitoring Committee Saeb Erekat said, "We aggressively condemn the meeting between the Sudanese president and Netanyahu. This is a stab in the back of the Palestinian nation and a deviation from the Arab consensus and Arab peace initiative. The timing helps the Trump administration and Prime Minister Netanyahu as they eradicate the Palestinian issue by means of attacking the Al-Aqsa Mosque and other holy places in Jerusalem and annexation in the West Bank."

Erekat also criticized Uganda's decision to move their embassy to Jerusalem and called on African nations to retain the decisions and positions they have historically held in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which rest upon the positions of the international community.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks with Chad's President Idriss Deby, during their meeting in N'Djamena, Chad January 20, 2019.
Reuters

Israeli sources have hinted that a formal normalization of ties will also help Israel in its attempts to deport Sudanese nationals seeking refuge in Israel. According to assessments by the UN, some 7,000 Sudanese individuals are currently living in Israel; 4,500 are originally from so-called "crisis areas" in Sudan, where most of the international community does not agree to have them deported.

Unlike Eritrea, where Israel had decided it would not deport back asylum seekers, the official stance regarding Sudanese asylum seekers is that what prevents their return is the lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The formalization of ties might change the Israeli position, despite the fact that international treaties forbid sending asylum seekers to conflict areas in Sudan and advise to look into each case individually.

The announcement comes following international and local reports in recent years that Israel was working to open ties with the African country as well as with several other Muslim countries on the continent, including Mali and Niger.

Encouraged by the Trump administration, Israel has sought better relations with formerly hostile Arab and Muslim countries that share its worries about Iran or see potential economic benefits.

Sudan severed ties with Iran in 2015 to grow closer to the Sunni Arab bloc led by Saudi Arabia - a group now courted by Washington in its attempts to isolate Tehran. In 2016, Israel encouraged U.S. and European allies to lift sanctions on an economically embattled Sudan.

After Netanyahu visited Chad in 2019, Israeli officials spoke publicly about attempting to open formal diplomatic channels with Khartoum on several occasions, especially after the ouster of dictator Omar al-Bashir.

Before Netanyahu set out for his visit, he said that "Israel is making a big return to Africa, and Africa has already returned to Israel. These are important ties politically, economically and in terms of security," adding that he hopes to have good news upon his return. 

Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara arrive at Entebbe International Airport, Uganda, February 3, 2020.

Warming up to Uganda

Earlier Monday, Netanyahu and his Ugandan counterpart, President Yoweri Museveni, held a press conference in which the latter said he his country was considering opening an embassy in Jerusalem. 

"Regarding the issue of the embassy, we are assessing it," Museveni said. 

"What is for sure is there is a part of Jerusalem which was in Israel, this hasn't moved," Museveni added, saying "having it here, having it there - I don't see why we wouldn't… we are studying that."

The Ugandan president made the statement in response to a suggestion by the Israeli premier, who told him in front of the cameras: “I have a suggestion. You open an embassy in Jerusalem, and we’ll open one in Kampala.”

The Israeli prime minister also announced direct flights between Tel Aviv and Kampala.

In July 2016, the prime minister participated in a ceremony in Uganda to mark the 40th anniversary of Operation Entebbe, a hostage rescue by Israeli commandos at Entebbe Airport in 1976. The operation, which aimed to rescue 106 passengers of an Air France flight that was hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, succeeded in freeing 102 of the hostages. Netanyahu's brother Yonatan, who led the mission, was killed.

During the 2016 visit, Netanyahu met Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, South Sudan President Salva Mayardit, then-Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe, Zambian President Edgar Lungu and former Tanzanian Foreign Minister Augustine Mahiga.