Analysis

Israel-Sudan Ties Have Been Warming for Years, but It Doesn't Hurt to Out Them Before an Election

Just as the much-heralded annexations are being delayed, the expulsion of asylum seekers is for now nothing more than a campaign promise

Netanyahu and his wife Sara with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Uganda's First Lady Janet Museveni at the State House in Entebbe, Uganda, February 3, 2020
STRINGER/Reuters

Anyone who’s been living in Israel during the past decade can easily deduce that the travels of Benjamin Netanyahu during this third election campaign within one year are far from over.

After the highly publicized ride he gave to Naama Issachar from Russia on the prime ministerial plane and the meeting with the leader of Sudan after years of complete diplomatic disengagement, anything that bears even a vague resemblance to a rabbit will be trapped immediately and stuffed into his hat, to be pulled out during the weeks remaining to the March 2 election.

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As usual with this type of thing, they weren’t conjured out of thin air, but rather were the result of converging circumstances.

Genuine, even imperative political moves, such as freeing Issachar, might be expedited to come to fruition during an election campaign. In the case of Sudan, relations with the majority-Muslim state have in fact been thawing for several years. Four years ago Haaretz reported that Israel had asked the United States and other countries to improve their ties with Sudan after it severed relations with Iran. Recently there has indeed been a change in the U.S. attitude toward the country. In the context of Netanyahu’s visit to Chad last year, Haaretz also reported on Israel’s express desire to renew ties with Sudan. Covert messages had been passing between the countries for years, and the deposing of dictator Omar al-Bashir in April paved the way for moving forward.

Thus, the political aspect isn’t necessarily expressed in the substance of events, but primarily in their timing, their publicity and the accompanying messages. Thus, for example, the meeting with Sudanese leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan led associates of Netanyahu to speculate that the warming ties would help facilitate the future repatriation of some 7,000 Sudanese now living in Israel, even though, according the UN High Commission for Refugees, 4,500 of them come from three regions in Sudan that are still in crisis and most of the world is not repatriating asylum seekers to those areas.

Anyone listening carefully to Netanyahu’s speech to Likud members two weeks ago could have heard the hint there. The address was full of all kinds of campaign promises, one of which was, “We blocked the entrance of a million infiltrators from Sinai to Israel, and we are now going to remove the two-thirds that remained. We’re working on that; you’ll hear news soon.” So on Monday we heard the news.

What else did he promise there? “We’ve connected the entire country to the center, and soon [we’ll do the same with] Judea and Samaria.” “We will apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea without delay.” “We will apply Israeli law to all the settlements, all of them.” “We will bring historic peace agreements with other Arab countries.” “We will bring a historic defense alliance with the United States.” And “We will finally stop Iran for good.” Since that speech, it’s also been reported that Netanyahu has promised to bring the remaining Falashmura, descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity, to Israel.

But there’s something else that ought to be clear to anyone who has lived here for a decade: Netanyahu makes a lot of promises. That doesn’t mean that it will happen. Just as the much-heralded annexations are being delayed, the expulsion of asylum seekers is for now nothing more than a campaign promise.