In 2018 I wrote in Haaretz that Israel should seek allies in Africa, but not war criminals and despots like Sudan’s Omar Al Bashir, not least when it wouldn’t let survivors of their genocides find shelter in Israel.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has long sought diplomatic normalization with Muslim states in Africa. He seemed indifferent to the character of the regimes; he met with the Chadian dictator Idriss Deby, who has violently suppressed any political opposition and committed grave violations of human rights since he took power in 1990.
The history of relations between the two states has not been easy. Israel and Sudan have never established diplomatic relations; indeed, Sudan officially went to war with Israel as part of Arab-state coalitions in both 1948 and 1967. Over the years, Israel has carried out several air strikes on warehouses and convoys housing and transporting weapons bound for Gaza and Hamas – an organization with which successive Sudanese regimes have had close ties. My objection to Netanyahu’s visit to Africa back then was not in any way motivated by any objection to the normalization of relations with Israel – because I support that normalization, a position at odds with that of some other Sudanese.
I feared specifically normalizing relations with Sudan’s then-president Omar al-Bashir. This is a man who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, war crimes and the genocide he committed against the people of Darfur from 2003 onwards. It was clear to me then that Netanyahu was acting out of a desperate need to do anything possible to strengthen his base at home and shift public attention from his impending criminal indictments.
In April 2019, Sudan’s former president Bashir was ousted in a coup d’etat after six months of a non-stop civil uprising that roiled Sudan, the third such uprising since independence in 1964. I remain convinced that if Bashir had still been in power now, Netanyahu would not have hesitated to shake his blood-soaked hands.
Monday morning I saw Netanyahu's tweet and reports that he had met in Uganda with Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, head of Sudan’s Sovereign Transitional Council, a joint military-civilian transitional council that seized power after Bashir was deposed. The meeting was facilitated by Uganda’s dictator, President Yoweri Museveni.
I was shocked and devastated. Not that I had any expectations of Netanyahu, but even so, I could not process it. I was still too naïve. The leaders of Sudan and Israel agreed to work towards normalizing diplomatic relations between their two states.
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This move serves two primary ends: to boost Netanyahu’s prestige, just weeks before a critical third national election, and to elevate and legitimize Abdul Fattah al-Burhan.
First, Burhan. Like his former boss Omar al-Bashir, Burhan is a founder of the vicious Janjaweed militia. He himself orchestrated the killing of more than 300,000 innocent civilians in Darfur, and displaced more than 2.5 million people, among them several thousand who are still seeking asylum in Israel today. Even Netanyahu does not dispute the atrocities committed by the Bashir regime, in which Burhan was complicit. Darfur is described by the United Nations as “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.”
But, ironically, instead of embracing the victims and the survivors seeking shelter who knocked on every door until they managed to reach Israel, Netanyahu chooses to shake hands with and embrace the perpetrators, the war criminals.
To add insult to injury, Netanyahu relates to the survivors of those atrocities in Israel with contemptuous incitement, calling them “infiltrators.” In March 2018, at a conference in Dimona, he even declared: “The infiltration of Africans is more dangerous than terrorism.”
It is a devastating message to the victims of the Bashir regime. It reaffirms that “never again” is a mere aspirational, catchy slogan – it is not backed up with real commitment and substance. But deporting Sudanese is popular with Netanyahu’s right-wing nationalist base.
The Sudanese people paid a high price for their peaceful revolution. Thousands lost their lives, and still now, they are brutally abused by the military junta headed by Netanyahu’s new ally, Burhan, who heads an uncomfortable joint military-civilian transitional council.
But Sudan has a civilian-led government, one in need of all the principled legitimation and empowerment it can get. Netanyahu, however, did not meet with the head of this civilian government, Sudan’s well-respected prime minister, Dr. Abdallah Hamdok. Instead, he met with a general complicit in wide-scale violence, who represents a competing center of power.
Indeed, it’s not even clear that Burhan fully informed Sudan’s prime minister, who was abroad, about the meeting with Netanyahu. Sudan’s foreign policy towards Israel certainly shows signs of competing pressures, zigzagging within the space of one week between backing motions by the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference rejecting the Trump administration’s Mideast peace plan, then meeting its prime beneficiary, Netanyahu.
Not that the Israeli premier is alone in making this choice; U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated both leaders on their meeting and promptly invited Burhan to talks in Washington D.C. Sudan hopes that Israel’s strong connections in the White House will help remove the country from the U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism. It is thus even more ironic that both Netanyahu and the U.S. have deliberately strengthened the military junta and weakened the civilian-led government and its efforts to bring about peace and stability in Sudan.
I believe there are two probable outcomes to a Burhan-Netanyahu alliance. First, by favoring the military junta, Netanyahu is jeopardizing Sudan’s civilian leadership, undermining Sudan’s hard-won progress towards democracy, and potentially helping trigger more chaos in the country.
Second, I fear the deportation of asylum seekers in Israel, Sudanese as well as Eritreans, is now imminent. Israel has always argued that Sudanese asylum seekers cannot be deported directly to Sudan due to the absence of diplomatic relations; the state of human rights abuses seems not to be a relevant factor. But now, I assume the policy of forcible deportation – already tried out in the recent past – will return.
The Sudanese people have long waited for the moment they could enjoy and celebrate their freedom. The sacrifices they have made are great. The Kandakas and the Mirarims (Sudanese queens) are more than prepared to lift their country up from tyranny to the light of freedom.
In choosing with whom it allies, Israel is deciding which side it will raise up, which form of government and behavior it legitimates and amplifies, and which leaders of its own it chooses to bear this moral and political responsibility. The Sudanese people will be continuing our struggle, until we overcome – and I for one would welcome a true partnership with Israel, but not one based on selective moral blindness.
Mutasim A. Ali is a master’s student of international and comparative law at George Washington University and a Thomas Buergenthal scholar. He was the first Sudanese asylum seeker to receive official refugee status in Israel in 2016. Twitter: @mutasimali3