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First Saudi Arabia, Now Sudan: Why Israel's Normalization Strategy Is Imploding

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Sudan's Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, then head of transitional military council of Sudan and now coup leader, meets Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi on a visit to the UAE two years ago
Sudan's Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, then head of the transitional military council and now coup leader, meets Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince on a visit to the UAE two years agoCredit: Mohamed Al Hammadi/Ministry of Presidential Affairs via AP
Yonatan Touval
Yonatan Touval

One year and two days after the celebratory announcement that Sudan and Israel had agreed to normalize relations, Jerusalem finds itself facing a strategic dilemma in the wake of the Sudanese military's power grab in Khartoum.

Suspicion that Israeli officials were in the know about the plot, if not outright complicit in it, surfaced almost immediately following a report reports that a Sudanese security delegation had secretly visited Israel just weeks earlier. And this suspicion seemed all but validated in light of the revelation that an Israeli delegation, which included defense and Mossad representatives, traveled to Khartoum in the aftermath of the coup for talks on unspecified topics.

While it is not known who headed the Israeli side on both these occasions, it appears that on the Sudanese side it was Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the notorious commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and a key ally of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese Armed Forces and the man responsible for the putsch.

Unfortunately, even if there are no grounds to believe that Israeli military and intelligence officials were complicit in the military takeover (a possibility about which even some Israeli journalists have openly speculated), Israel is far from an innocent bystander.

Israel is a stakeholder with vested interests, formally bound up in Sudan's political transition in light of the Trump administration's ill-witted decision last year to force Khartoum to agree to normalize relations with Jerusalem in exchange for a package of vital financial incentives, including Sudan’s long-awaited removal from U.S. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.

Then-President Donald Trump talks on a phone call in the Oval Office with the leaders of Sudan and Israel as his advisors and officials applaudCredit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

It was a role in a quid pro quo that Israel should have refused to play, and precisely because of its genuinely strategic interests in forging a long-term relationship with a stable and functioning Sudan. Indeed, as some analysts, including myself, had warned ahead of the announcement of the deal, the heavy-handed manner in which Washington pressured Khartoum to normalize relations with Jerusalem was bound to backfire.

At a time that Sudan was governed by a fragile cohabitation arrangement between military and civilian stakeholders and undergoing a fragile process of democratization, we argued, a decision as publicly contentious as recognizing Israel risked strengthening the very elements who posed the greatest impediment to a smooth transition to civilian rule – primarily, the military, which assumed the lead in establishing contacts with Israel, and the Islamists, who opposed any such contacts.

In the event, Israeli prime minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, put aside Israel's long-term interests in favor of a short-term public relations victory in the form of yet another normalization deal with a Muslim country. In so doing, he joined President Trump’s desire to score a quick victory for expedient political gains – just two weeks before the U.S. presidential elections.

The risk that such a move would add further friction to Sudan's internal political process – a process whose derailment would not only doom the country's chances of transitioning into a Western-oriented democracy but throw it into a prolonged political turmoil and perhaps even civil war – was blithely ignored. Sudan, after all, was a trophy, not a partner.

To be sure, turmoil in Sudan would first and foremost constitute a tragedy for the people of Sudan. But as Netanyahu must have appreciated, it would also undermine Israel's broader strategic goals.

Absenting a functioning government, Sudan would be in no position to partner and collaborate with Israel on any number of issues, including strategic-related interests pertaining, most urgently, to Iranian regional actions directly and through its proxies – both inside Sudan and the Red Sea. And it is these very interests that appear to have guided Israel’s most recent moves against the backdrop of the military takeover in Sudan.

A Sudanese protester draped with the national flag flashes the victory sign next to burning tires in the capital Khartoum to denounce overnight detentions by the army of members of Sudan's governmentCredit: - - AFP

Certainly, from a narrowly-defined security perspective, Israel is right to be seeking assurances from Sudan’s military leadership that any preliminary understandings over security and intelligence cooperation, reached before the coup, would be upheld.

Thus, for instance, of utmost concern to Israel is that the establishment of an intelligence base on the Red Sea, presumably near the Sudan's principal coastal city of Port Said, not be imperiled, not least given the recent unrest in the area that had seen tribal protesters blockading the seaport for several weeks.

All the same, even as it is too early to tell how the military coup in Sudan will play out, Jerusalem’s recent actions suggest it has no actual thought-out policy toward Khartoum. Israel-Sudan relations require a broader and more nuanced view, especially as the new military leadership has failed to win legitimacy from Washington and other key Western powers.

Indeed, the strong condemnation by the Biden administration, which has already suspended $700 million in financial assistance to Sudan, should cast a chill on Israel’s rapprochement with the Sudanese leadership rather than, as Jerusalem seems determined to show, stimulate it.

The very fact that Israeli officials have confirmed the report about the visit of the Israeli delegation to Khartoum last week – a report that originally appeared in a Sudanese newspaper and which Israeli officials might have easily dismissed, refused to comment on, and even ban its publication in Israel – suggests that there are those in Jerusalem who deem it useful to demonstrate that Israel is defying the consensus among its allies on how to respond to the putsch in Sudan, perhaps as a way of rewarding the Sudanese military leadership for their willingness to continue to cooperate with Israel on vital security needs.

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok holds a press conference at the Council of Ministers in the capital Khartoum this summer before being deposed in a military coupCredit: ASHRAF SHAZLY - AFP

And the possibility that Israeli actions have, at the very least, been coordinated with Washington only underscores the apparent utility in this defiance – namely, that Israel is determined to tread its own course and is willing to prove useful for its allies should they so desire.

Either way, Israel's conduct betrays misguided diplomatic and strategic thinking.

It's misguided, in that it feeds into Sudanese misconceptions about Jerusalem’s sway over Washington (misconceptions, often tinged with antisemitism, that are prevalent not only in the Arab and Muslim world but also in many European capitals). And misguided, in that it fails to read the regional and international map.

In contrast to the global acquiescence to the counter-revolutionary coup in Egypt that toppled the government of Mohammed Morsi, Western powers are unlikely to accept the counter-revolutionary putsch in Khartoum. It is one thing to overthrow an Islamist leadership, even if it was democratically elected; it is another thing altogether to derail a political process that holds out the promise of a Western-oriented democracy.

Rather than let narrow security interests combined with diplomatic hubris drive its policy toward Khartoum, therefore, Israel and its relatively new government have an opportunity to rethink its approach to Sudan. Such an approach, which might be called differential normalization, might also help inform and refashion its outlook toward diplomatic opportunities such as brokering ties with further former adversaries more broadly.

Women in Khartoum chant slogans to protest Sudanese President of the Sovereignty Council Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan's contentious decision to meet Israel's prime minister in a move toward normaliCredit: P Photo/Marwan Ali

With respect to Sudan, Israel should curb its instincts and proceed cautiously, limiting its relations with the military leadership only to the most vital security and intelligence needs.

Israel must recall that what incentivized the Sudanese military stakeholders – first and foremost, General al-Burhan, the most conspicuous backer of the normalization agreement with Israel within the Sudanese leadership – was the generous financial package that was offered in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel. Now that key elements in the package are in jeopardy, it remains to be seen whether, and for how long, the generals will continue to embrace Israel.

And although al-Burhan continues to enjoy considerable support, including also financial, from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, their money can never entirely supplant the kind of aid that Sudan would need from the World Bank, IMF, and other international institutions.

The very need for Israel to adopt a more cautious and nuanced approach to Sudan applies also to other regional players. The gung-ho enthusiasm Jerusalem conveyed toward the first signatories of the so-called Abraham Accords last year, the UAE and Bahrain, and, at least in the case of the UAE, its reciprocity, set a standard that was difficult and perhaps impossible to reach for others.

Indeed, it is no wonder that, despite the expectations that as many as nine countries might follow the example of the UAE and Bahrain and normalize relations with Israel, only one single country in addition to Sudan did so – namely, Morocco, which took the step in return for winning American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

Sudanese anti-coup protesters gather in a street in the capital Khartoum olast month to express their support for the country's democratic transition, derailed by a military coup and deadly crackdownCredit: - - AFP

While the reluctance of others to join, notably Oman and Saudi Arabia, may have also had to do with a wide array of considerations, including the expectation of a change in administrations in Washington, Israel’s ham-fisted approach played a factor.

The way in which Israel bungled the direct face-to-face talks at a meeting between then-prime minister Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Neom last November is a case in point. The Israeli public's swaggering bombast over the meeting, which was supposed to remain undisclosed, generated considerable backlash from opponents of normalization with Israel from within the Saudi royal household and quashed whatever existed for a diplomatic breakthrough during the final weeks of the Trump administration.

Having instantly established a uniform model for how normalization should look and feel, Israel is losing opportunities to make diplomatic advances with countries that might have been put off by the triumphalist terms and adulatory tones in which Israel’s accords with the UAE and Bahrain were cast. After all, no country is like another, and no relationship can, or indeed should, be like another. What suits the UAE and, with some adjustments, Bahrain, does not and cannot suit Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Djibouti.

Yet Israel’s one-size-fits-all approach did not originate with the Abraham Accords. It has shaped its attitude to allies and rivals alike since at least the 1979 signing of its peace treaty with Egypt. Indeed, it explains why Israel is so resentful of the cold peace with Egypt and impatient with the standoffish attitude of Jordan.

A woman walks in front of a banner in Dammam showing Saudi King Salman, right, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, and Saudi Arabia's founder late King Abdul Aziz Al Saud Credit: AP Photo/Amr Nabil

In Israel’s black-and-white diplomatic imagination, peace must translate into a warm and thriving relationship, with trade and tourism at their heart; anything that falls short of that feels like a snub.

It is this same attitude that hampered efforts to reach a peace agreement with Syria, especially during the final days of Hafez al Assad in 2000, when Israel’s demands for a full-blown peace deterred the ailing leader out of concern that his son and apparent successor, Bashar, would be unable to overcome the domestic opposition which the influx of Israeli goods and tourists was expected to generate. Unfortunately, his preference for a "go-slow" approach was taken by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak as a sign that Assad was not serious enough.

Finally, a policy of differential normalization might also help Israel overcome some of its ingrained resistance to making meaningful progress with the Palestinians.

Israel’s seemingly countless demands on the Palestinians at the level of their attitude to Israel – whether that they recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" or abandon their myth of the Right of Return – all bespeak the same intrinsic difficulty to fathom a peace agreement, especially one that required making supposedly painful concessions, that did not reflect amity and reconciliation. It is yet one more reason why Israel has failed to do all that it might have done to reach a final-status agreement with the PLO and, mutatis mutandis, a long-term hudna, or truce, with Hamas.

A policy of differential normalization would not only open up a world of possibilities for Israel that, as yet, remain inconceivable. And it will help Israel make peace with the peace that it has already won.

Yonatan Touval is a senior foreign policy analyst at Mitvim: The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Twitter: @Yonatan_Touval

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