Early this week, Netanyahu made a trip to Uganda, another stop in his world tour, preceded by last week’s visits to Washington and Moscow. And the de rigueur rabbit was pulled out of the hat in the form of a meeting with the president of Sudan, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. This was a considerable diplomatic achievement, whose primary purpose was to serve Netanyahu’s political objective of bolstering his image as a mega-statesman on the eve of the third election. It’s likely that the Prime Minister’s Bureau is now hard at work trying to arrange other such meetings – perhaps with leaders of the Gulf states – ahead of the March 2 vote.
These moves are also intended to soothe right-wingers disappointed by the shattered promises of Netanyahu and his aides regarding expedited annexation of the settlements after the presentation of Donald Trump’s peace plan last week. The president’s advisor, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, put an end (for the time being) to Netanyahu’s expectations and effectively vetoed annexationist moves by Israel before the election. The position taken by Kushner, which appears to have Trump’s tacit consent, placed the whole peace plan in its proper proportions. In the meantime, its flaws – in the eyes of both the right and the left, in Israel – continue to be exposed.
But that shouldn’t necessarily diminish the diplomatic value of the meeting with the Sudanese leader. Netanyahu is working consistently to expand Israel’s ties, most of them covert, some not, with Arab and Muslim countries, despite a total impasse (to which he himself has contributed, in a major way) in negotiations with the Palestinians. The prime minister identified early on the confluence of interests between Israel and the Sunni regimes, against the backdrop of the dual threat posed to both: from the Shi’ite alliance led by Iran, and from Sunni jihadist organizations like Al-Qaida and ISIS.
If relations should indeed thaw, there are quite a few things Sudan could get from Israel. Among them: technological and scientific aid, assistance in the realm of intelligence (not mentioned publicly, but certainly discussed) and, above all, access to the White House. Sudan, like other countries in the region, is well aware of the strength of the bond between Netanyahu and the current U.S. administration. In a near-pariah state like Sudan, that is in dire need of rehabilitation from the West, after years of civil war, war crimes and involvement in regional terrorism – Israel is perceived as an essential conduit to the United States.
Rapprochement with the Americans is meant to be a development that would supplement a shift that began in Sudan’s approach several years ago. About a decade ago, Khartoum was deep in Iran’s pocket. Tehran transferred money to the regime, and in return received valuable logistical assistance with its weapons industry and arms-smuggling operations. From 2009 to 2012, the foreign media reported on a series of attacks that were attributed to Israel, against arms ships, smuggling convoys, and in one case even on a weapons-manufacturing facility in Sudan. Some of the attacks were by air; in one instance, a naval commando unit reportedly carried out a raid.
For Iran, Sudan served as a central smuggling route, helping it to carry out two missions: the transfer of weapons to the Gaza Strip through its territory and from there to Egypt and Sinai (after Israel successfully scuttled maritime smuggling), and, in a westward direction, the smuggling of arms to the Polisario underground, which for more than four decades has been trying to liberate the Spanish Sahara from Moroccan rule. Tehran’s campaign is being waged in every part of the Middle East and North Africa. The current blocking efforts of the Sunni camp, the United States and their strategic ally Israel are being played out accordingly.
Following the jolt that struck the Arab world beginning in 2010, the Gulf states began pressuring Sudan to move to their camp. Funding from Tehran was supplanted by Saudi money and economic aid from the United Arab Emirates. Sudan, for its part, contributed battalions of scruffy young men whom the Saudis used as cannon fodder in the Yemen civil war, when they intervened on behalf of the regime and against the Houthi insurgents – who are supported by Iran. This is the background that made possible the warming-up of Israel-Sudan relations and the meeting between Netanyahu and Burhan this week in Entebbe.