Though Israel is pleased that Sudan has distanced itself from the radical axis headed by Iran over the past year, it still objects to Sudanese human rights violations, senior Israeli officials said Tuesday.
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The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on suspicion of genocide and crimes against humanity.
For senior government officials to volunteer such a statement, rather than simply responding to reporters’ questions, is extremely unusual. The statement was prompted by Haaretz’s report last week that Israel is seeking to persuade America and Europe to improve relations with Sudan, in reward for drawing away from Iran and closer to the alliance of Sunni Muslim states led by Saudi Arabia. Israeli diplomats have even urged their European colleagues to help Sudan deal with its external debt, which totals $50 billion.
The senior officials didn’t deny any of the details in Haaretz’s report, but merely tried to explain Israel’s position toward Sudan.
“Israel supports the international community’s efforts to end the bloody conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region,” said one. “In this context, we should make it clear that Sudan’s dissociation from the radical axis headed by Iran, including by severing diplomatic relations with Tehran and halting arms smuggling to the Gaza Strip, suits Israel’s interests. But Israel opposes the human rights violations being committed in Sudan, and as the state of the Jewish people, we will never accept genocide.”
Senior Sudanese officials also commented on Haaretz’s report over the weekend, accusing Israel of trying to profit from positive developments in U.S.-Sudanese relations.
“Efforts to improve relations between the United States and Sudan are being carried out directly between the two countries,” Sudanese officials told the Khartoum-based paper Al-Youm Al-Tali. “Even though Israel has powerful arms through which it can affect American policy toward Sudan, we don’t need Israeli mediation.”
Last week, four Knesset members from both the opposition and the coalition asked Avi Dichter, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, to call an urgent committee meeting on Israel’s efforts to persuade other countries to warm up to Sudan. The MKs – Michal Rosin and Tamar Zandberg (Meretz), Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) and Yehuda Glick (Likud) – argued that these efforts have never been discussed by either the committee or the diplomatic-security cabinet.
Al-Bashir, who has ruled Sudan since taking power in a military coup in 1989, is one of the world’s most notorious dictators. He is accused by the ICC with massacring hundreds of thousands of non-Arab African tribesman in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Israeli law doesn’t define Sudan as an enemy country, but the two have no diplomatic relations and have been mutually hostile for many years. Sudanese law singles out Israel as the only country in the world that Sudanese citizens are forbidden to enter. Moreover, Sudan for years hosted a Hamas command post and maintained military and diplomatic alliances with Iran and Hezbollah.
In the past, Iran used Sudan as a base for smuggling arms to Gaza and even built a giant factory near the capital, Khartoum, which manufactured long-range rockets for Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
From 2008 to 2014, several airstrikes were carried out in Sudan on arms convoys headed to Gaza, an Iranian arms ship anchored in Port Sudan and the rocket factory. Sudan blamed Israel, though Jerusalem never officially acknowledged responsibility.
But in late 2014, Sudan began cooling its relations with Iran under heavy pressure from Saudi Arabia. It expelled Iran’s cultural attaché, closed several Iranian culture centers and later joined the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemem. Finally, in January 2016, it completely severed diplomatic ties with Iran following an attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Sudan also held a public discussion this year about the possibility of normalizing relations with Israel.
Several party leaders voiced support for normalizing relations with Israel. Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour said in a public address that normalization with Israel should be considered, though the Sudanese Foreign Ministry later issued a weak denial. Sudanese Vice President Hassabo Mohamed Abdel Rahman said a few days later that normalization with Israel was out of the question.