A surprise meeting between Sudan's leader and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stirred controversy in Sudan on Tuesday, with the government saying it wasn't notified ahead of time and critics lambasting the talks on social media.
Others said the meeting would improve Sudan's standing with the United States and help Khartoum shed its pariah image. For Israel, it was a major diplomatic breakthrough with an Arab African state, two days after the Arab League rejected President Donald Trump's Mideast plan.
Sudan's cabinet on Tuesday discussed that meeting, which it said it had not yet been informed about. It also summoned leaders of the Forces for Freedom and Change, an alliance that fronted protests that toppled Omar al-Bashir last year, for consultations, FFC sources said. Sudan's government spokesman said officials were waiting for "clarifications" on Burhan's return.
A senior Sudanese military official said the meeting was orchestrated by the United Arab Emirates and aimed at helping remove Sudan's terror listing in the United States, which dates back to the 1990s, when Sudan briefly hosted Osama bin Laden and other wanted militants.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the head of Sudan’s transitional government, agreed to meet Netanyahu because officials thought it would help “accelerate” the process of being removed from the terror list. He said only a “small circle” of top officials in Sudan, as well as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, knew about the meeting.
Last week, the UAE's foreign minister posted an article on Twitter that urged the Palestinians not to reject the Trump administration's plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Abdullah bin Zayed's stance led Palestinian sources to believe that Netanyahu's trip to Uganda would include a covert meeting with Emirati leaders.
The UAE was one of three Arab countries that sent an ambassador to the unveiling of the plan at the White House, along with Oman and Bahrain. These countries have forged quiet relationships in recent years with Israel, driven primarily by a shared animosity toward Iran. Recently, Israel's Foreign Ministry announced that it will participate in the World Expo 2020 in Dubai. However, Israel's foreign minister eventually did not attend, as the event was shortly preceded by the assassination of the head of Iran's Quds Force Qassem Soleimani.
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Compared with Saudi Arabia, the UAE has been more open to allowing Israelis into its country, whether for international forums, covert diplomatic meetings, or business trips. In July, Israel's Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz attended an international climate summit in the UAE. In 2018, Israel's Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev visited the UAE for a judo tournament.
The Uganda meeting between Netanyahu and Burhan was kept secret but grabbed headlines late Monday when the Israeli leader announced the two had began talks on normalizing relations between their countries.
Sudan is desperate to lift sanctions linked to its listing by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terror — a key step toward ending its isolation and rebuilding the economy after the popular uprising last year that toppled the country's autocrat Omar al-Bashir and installed the joint civilian-military sovereign council, headed by Burhan.
But Khartoum is also a longtime member of the Arab League and joined other members in rejecting Trump's plan at a meeting in Cairo on Saturday. The U.S. plan, heavily in favor of Israel, would grant the Palestinians limited self-rule in parts of the occupied West Bank, while allowing Israel to annex all its settlements there and keep nearly all of East Jerusalem.
From Uganda, Netanyahu tweeted: “History!” while his office said the meeting with Burhan came at the invitation of Uganda. The statement said Netanyahu “believes that Sudan is moving in a new and positive direction" — an apparent reference to a possible removal from the terror list.
“We agreed to begin cooperation that will lead to normalization of relations between the two countries,” Netanyahu said.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the Burhan-Netanyahu talks in Uganda, and “thanked the Sudanese leader for his leadership in normalizing ties with Israel,” according to a statement from State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.
In a phone call a day earlier, Pompeo had invited Burhan to visit the U.S. Ortagus said Burhan’s visit to Washington would take place later in the year, without providing details.
The State Department said Pompeo and Burhan “underscored their shared desire to improve Sudan’s active participation in the region and international communities and their commitment to work towards a stronger, healthier U.S.-Sudan bilateral relationship.”
On social media, critics in Sudan denounced the meeting, accusing Burhan of trying to get on the Trump administration's good side through Israel. Others applauded the meeting, arguing it was good for Sudan's future.
“Our interest is above everything and Sudan first," tweeted Mubarak Ardol, former spokesman of a rebel faction of Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North that was part of the pro-democracy movement that led to al-Bashir's ouster.
Prominent activist Amjed Farid said Burhan had no mandate from the people of Sudan to offer Netanyahu a “promise of that" which is not his to give.
Information Minister Faisal Mohamed Saleh, who also serves as the government spokesman, said the Cabinet learned of the meeting through the media and was not consulted beforehand. “We will wait for clarifications after" Burhan returns home from Uganda, Saleh said.
Sudan hosted the Arab League summit after the 1967 war that became famous for establishing the "three no's": No to peace with Israel, no to recognition of Israel and no to negotiations with Israel.
That consensus broke down when Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, and has further eroded in recent years as Israel has improved ties with Gulf Arab nations that share its concerns about Iran. Only two Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, have made peace with Israel.
Reuters contributed to this report.