Why Biden's Point Man on Sudan Is Visiting Israel

David Satterfield, Biden's special envoy to the Horn of Africa, previously visited Kenya, Egypt and the UAE, as the U.S. pushes the Sudanese military to step down after its October coup

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
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Sudanese soldiers outside Khartoum, the nation's capital
Sudanese soldiers outside Khartoum, the nation's capital Credit: Hussein Malla / אי־פי
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – The newly appointed U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, David Satterfield, notably included Israel in his current round of travel to governments promoting democratic civilian rule in Sudan.

Satterfield, who replaced Jeffrey Feltman as special envoy last month, wraps up his trip in Israel on Wednesday after previously visiting Kenya, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. He had already undertaken a separate trip to Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Ethiopia since assuming the role.

Satterfield’s appointment and visit comes weeks after an Israeli delegation reportedly met with top Sudanese general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Khartoum’s military-run ruling council.

The Sudanese military seized power on October 25, upending the East African state’s fragile transition to democratic rule after President Omar al-Bashir’s three decades of autocratic rule was ended by his removal in April 2019. The country’s prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, resigned last month, leaving the military in full control. However, the political stalemate has led to violent demonstrations leaving dozens of protesters dead.

Following the coup, the U.S. directly appealed to Israel to use its nascent ties with Sudan to prevent violent escalation. The direct appeal came months after the two states agreed to normalize ties and Sudan’s cabinet in turn repealed a 1958 law forbidding diplomatic and business relations with Israel.

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Israel’s efforts to bolster diplomatic relations with Sudan have lagged behind the other countries with which it normalized ties in 2020 as part of the Abraham Accords. A source close to Israeli-Sudanese talks previously told Haaretz that “the internal situation in the country has made it difficult for Sudan to promote ties with Israel the same way the other countries have,” referring to the UAE and Bahrain.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted Satterfield’s “decades of diplomatic experience and work amidst some of the world’s most challenging conflicts” when announcing his appointment. “The ongoing instability in the Horn of Africa and the region’s interlinked political, security and humanitarian challenges demand sustained focus by the United States,” Blinken said.

He said that Satterfield’s experience will be “instrumental in our continued effort to promote a peaceful and prosperous Horn of Africa, and to advance U.S. interests in this strategic region.”

Satterfield’s experience is strongly linked to Israel-related matters, thanks to his decades of experiences in key Middle East postings. Not only has he overseen previous State Department’s Middle East affairs and served as a diplomat and ambassador in key Arab states, but he had particularly good contacts with the Egyptian military because of his years of service heading the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai Peninsula – which oversees security provisions of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty – between 2009-2017.

U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, David Satterfield, during a previous visit to Israel in 2019.Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

As part of his job description, he was among the key partners in helping Israel and Egypt deal with sensitive security issues in Sinai.

The envoy has also been lauded for using his deep knowledge and experience to devise creative solutions, earning him respect throughout the Middle East and Arab world.

Satterfield’s efforts come as protesters have stepped up protests to demand a fully civilian government, following Hamdok’s resignation last month. The former prime minister, who had been removed in the coup only to be reinstated with the military’s backing a month later, resigned after failing to facilitate a compromise between the pro-democracy movement and the military, which has said it will only hand over power to an elected administration.

Discussing Israeli-Sudanese normalization efforts on Tuesday, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that as the Sudanese government is no longer in place, “we don’t feel it’s appropriate to push forward at this time – but that’s something we’re keeping a close eye on for an opportunity to resume.”

Phee added, however, that “it would be helpful if Israel would use its influence to encourage the transition to go forward, so then we can move forward on other important objectives like the Abraham Accords.”

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