Israel Urges U.S., Europe to Bolster Ties With Sudan, Citing Apparent Split With Iran

Jerusalem believes that Sudan has moved closer to the Sunni Muslim axis, and that positive gestures would encourage favorable developments. Sundan's Bashir, one of the world's notorious dictators, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide.

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir during a rally against the International Criminal Court at Khartoum Airport, July 30, 2016.
Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah, Reuters

Israel has contacted the U.S. government and other Western countries and encouraged them to take steps to improve relations with Sudan in wake of the break in relations between the Arab-African country and Iran in the past year, senior officials in Jerusalem tell Haaretz.

Thomas Shannon, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, visited Israel last week and held a series of talks in Jerusalem with officials from the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office. Shannon is a very senior diplomat, but this was his first visit to Israel. He also met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Shannon held most of his meetings with his Israeli counterpart, Alon Ushpiz, head of the Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic office. He had a separate meeting with Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold. A substantial portion of Shannon’s talks with Foreign Ministry officials dealt with Africa; Israeli diplomatic activity in that continent has greatly increased over the past year.

Israeli officials said one of the messages conveyed to Shannon by Foreign Ministry officials was the need to improve relations between the U.S. and Sudan. The Foreign Ministry believes Sudan cut its ties with Iran about a year ago, that arms smuggling from Sudan to the Gaza Strip has been halted and that Khartoum has moved closer to the axis of Sunni Muslim states led by Saudi Arabia.

Israeli officials said another message relayed to Shannon was that the positive steps taken by Sudan must not be ignored, and that American gestures toward Khartoum could be helpful. One thing Sudan has been seeking in the past year is for Washington to remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Foreign Ministry officials told the Americans they understand that the U.S. will not lift its sanctions on Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, but that increasing the American dialogue with others in the Sudanese government would be a positive move.

Bashir, who has ruled Sudan since taking power in a 1989 military coup, is one of the world’s most notorious dictators. There is an international warrant out for his arrest and he has been indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for the genocide of hundreds of thousands of non-Arab African tribespeople in the Darfur province of western Sudan.

In addition to talking to the American administration about Sudan, in the past year Israel has held similar talks with France, Italy and other European countries. One Jerusalem official said Israeli diplomats asked their contacts in Europe to assist Sudan in dealing with its vast external debt, which stands at close to 50 billion dollars, and to consider erasing some of it, as has been done with other countries that have fallen into severe economic crisis. Israel warned that an economic collapse in Sudan could further undermine stability in this part of Africa and end up strengthening terrorist elements there.

Sudan is not legally defined in Israel as an enemy state. However, there has been hostility between the countries for many years and they do not have diplomatic relations. Israel is the only country in the world that Sudanese law bars its citizens from entering. For many years, Sudan was home to a Hamas command center and it was also the military and political ally of Iran and Hezbollah. The Iranians used Sudan as a base for arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip and built a large factory near Khartoum for making long-range rockets for Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Between 2008 and 2014, a number of airstrikes were carried out in Sudanese territory — aimed at weapons convoys making their way to Gaza, at an Iranian weapons ship docked at Port Sudan and on the rocket factory. Khartoum attributed all the strikes to Israel, but Jerusalem has not claimed responsibility for any of them.

In 2015, Sudan began cooling its relations with Iran, due to heavy pressure from Saudi Arabia. Iran’s cultural attaché was expelled from the embassy in Khartoum and several Iranian cultural centers in Sudan were shuttered. Khartoum subsequently joined the Saudi-led coalition to fight the Houthi rebels in Yemen. In January 2016, Sudan severed diplomatic relations with Iran in the wake of the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

And in the early months of 2016, along with the distancing from Iran and the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, public discussion arose in Sudan about the possibility of normalization of relations with Israel. Much of this discussion took place as part of the Sudan National Dialogue, a conference of all the political parties and factions in the country, including the Sudanese military, whose aim was to try to end some of the country’s internal conflicts.

During the discussions in January regarding Sudan’s foreign relations, a number of party leaders voiced support for a possible change in approach toward Israel and for normalizing relations as part of an attempt to get closer to the United States and to get the economic sanctions lifted. Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour said in a public address that normalization with Israel should be considered. The Sudanese Foreign Ministry later issued a weak denial saying that the minister’s comments were taken out of context. Sudanese Vice President Hassabo Mohamed Abdel Rahman said a few days later that normalization of relations with Israel was out of the question.

The U.S. has diplomatic relations with Sudan but ties between the countries are very strained and since the mid-1990s America has not had an ambassador in Khartoum. Twenty years ago, the U.S. placed Sudan on its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Washington enforces strict economic sanctions on Sudan for grave human rights violations against opponents of Bashir’s regime and the country’s non-Arab citizens, and due to the genocide charges against the Sudanese president and some of his associates for the killing in Darfur.

The American sanctions have seriously hurt the Sudanese economy and significantly added to the Khartoum government’s debt. The U.S. also exerts heavy pressure on many other countries not to allow entry to Bashir. While Bashir is persona non grata in most Western countries and faces the threat of arrest there, he regularly visits other African countries, some Arab countries and China. Last May, he traveled to Uganda for the fifth swearing-in ceremony of President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power there since 1986.

During the ceremony, which was attended by many African leaders, Museveni expressed support for Bashir and criticized the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The American, Canadian and European diplomats present walked out of the event in protest at Bashir’s participation and Museveni’s speech. The U.S. has also turned down several requests from Bashir to obtain a visa in order to attend the UN General Assembly in New York.

In the last few years, since the declaration of South Sudan’s independence, the U.S. has been conducting a dialogue with the government in Khartoum. Ten days ago, there was a meeting in Nairobi between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour. And American Special Envoy Donald Booth has been trying for a long while to mediate between the Sudanese opposition factions and the Sudanese government. The Americans have detailed a list of conditions for lifting the sanctions on Sudan, chief among them a halt to the attacks against the citizens from African tribes in Darfur in the south and in the Blue Nile states; completing the National Dialogue process; signing a peace agreement with the opposition and improving the human rights situation in the country.