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Sudan Normalization Overshadowed by Netanyahu's Run-in With the Truth

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Friends or foes? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at a Foreign Ministry meeting in May 2020.
Friends or foes? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at a Foreign Ministry meeting in May 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

It’s starting to look like a fitting metaphor for Benjamin Netanyahu in his 11th consecutive year in office. The announcement of the normalization agreement with Sudan – the third with an Arab state in a little over one month – was received in Israel with something akin to apathy. No one took to the streets in celebration. Furthermore, much of the media attention surrounding the diplomatic achievement was overshadowed by yet another of the prime minister’s characteristic run-ins with the truth.

Netanyahu’s claim in late August that the agreements with the United Arab Emirates and with Bahrain would not lead to the U.S. sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE was shown to be a total deception. Not that this surprised the Israelis who took an interest in the episode, with the exception of a handful of Netanyahu cheerleaders who persisted in defending him.

The announcement of the breakthrough with Sudan, which was reported Friday afternoon, coincided with Israel admitting that its efforts to delay or restrict the sale of U.S. warplanes to the Emirates had failed. After Defense Minister Benny Gantz returned from a brief visit to Washington, the offices of the prime minister and the alternate prime minister issued a rare joint statement to the media. It said that Gantz and his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, had reached an agreement that “will allow the long-term procurement of advanced weapon systems to Israel.”

It also mentioned, somewhat opaquely, that “during the visit, the defense minister was notified by officials in the U.S. administration of its plans to announce shortly its intention to provide certain weapon systems to the UAE.” Netanyahu and Gantz agreed, their statement said, that since the U.S. is upgrading the capabilities of the Israel Defense Forces and maintaining its qualitative edge, Israel will not oppose the sale of “these certain systems” to the UAE.

Very interesting: When Netanyahu presents a historic breakthrough with the Emirates, he announces it to the public without bothering to first share the news with Gantz, and even takes pains to explain that he didn’t trust his defense minister or his foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, not to leak news of the talks. When Israel buckles to American pressure, all of a sudden it’s a joint decision, responsibility for which is shared equally.

Gantz's visit to Washington D.C.Credit: Shmulik Almany

Gantz’s people realized belatedly that there must be a limit to deference to the prime minister. About an hour later, shortly before the Friday evening television news broadcasts, his office issued the uncensored version of the events: After the agreement with the UAE was signed, Gantz learned that simultaneous negotiations were taking place over selling the Emirates advanced weapons. This was known “to Israeli officials” (that is, Netanyahu and his staff) but “concealed from the defense establishment” (that is, Gantz and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi).

What will the U.S. give Israel as compensation? Gantz isn’t saying for now, and in any event it’s not clear that the Trump administration can make promises when the polls show him losing in the November 3 election. Just a few weeks ago, Israeli defense officials were skeptical about the quality of the compensation being offered to the IDF. The public rapprochement with the UAE and Bahrain could very well outweigh the sale of F-35s to the Emirates in importance. But we must ask whether a dangerous precedent is being set, that could pave the way for sales of similar fighter planes to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt, in the event of Trump’s reelection.

F-35 jetCredit: BlueBarronPhoto / Shutterstock

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, the executive director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, summed up the episode neatly, using uncharacteristically sharp language, on Twitter. “The agreement is important and historic. It is a tripartite deal – normalization, the cancellation of annexation and, despite the prime minister’s denials, advanced weapons for the Emirates. The graver issue here is not the weapons for a distant, moderate country [that is] in our camp vis-a-vis Iran – rather, as a pattern that repeats itself, lying denials by the prime minister after he once again concealed a significant defense decision from senior cabinet ministers and the defense establishment,” Yadlin wrote.

Yadlin was alluding to the submarine affair. Netanyahu is battling to head off reopening an investigation into the secret approval he gave for Germany to sell advanced submarines to Egypt. He concealed his extraordinary act from top Israeli officials, including the president and the defense minister, lying to them and deliberately misleading the public.

Thirsty for domestic support

The agreement with Sudan was announced, purely by chance, exactly eight years after the bombing of of the Yarmouk munitions factory in Khartoum, the country’s capital, on October 23, 2012. Foreign media reports attributed the air strike to Israel, which has never claimed responsibility. Destroyed in the attack was the weapons factory built by Iran as part of its regional arms smuggling and manufacture program.

Much water has flowed in the Nile since then. In recent years Sudan’s leadership completed its exit from the pro-Iran camp, while at the same time also reducing its ties to the Islamic Brotherhood. Sudan moved into the sphere of influence of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, sending divisions of young recruits to fight the Saudis’ war in Yemen. Concurrently, Sudan made great efforts to improve its relations with the United States; the agreement with Israel can be understood as a part of these efforts.

In a sidelight to the most recent diplomatic development, video of an awkward phone call between Netanyahu and Donald Trump on Friday has been broadcast widely. In it, the U.S. president exhorts the prime minister to admit that “Sleepy Joe,” Trump’s derogatory nickname for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, would have been incapable of sealing the normalization deal between Israel and Sudan. Netanyahu, wisely, did not take the bait, replying, “Uh, well, Mr. President, one thing I can tell you is we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America, and we appreciate what you’ve done enormously.” The expression on Trump’s face betrayed his obvious disappointment.

The White House originally hoped to obtain normalization agreements with five Muslim or Arab states before the November 3 election, the most important of which are Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Saudis are hesitating, in part due to the proximity to the election but also presumably due to disagreement within the royal family. For Qatar, the move would be a dramatic one that bears asking if will involve U.S.-brokered reconciliation with its hostile Persian Gulf neighbors.

All of these moves have great strategic importance for the region. To the chagrin of Trump and Netanyahu, it will be difficult to translate this significance into support at home, a matter of extreme urgency to the president. Foreign policy is not a priority for American voters. Truth be told, Israelis are hard-put today to work up enthusiasm for yet more long TV pieces about the tourism potential of the Persian Gulf at a time when their children are stuck at home and their own financial future is shaky.