Will Washington push Sudan close to Israel?

Mike Pompeo has flown from Israel to Sudan, Washington is pushing an economically distressed Sudan to closer ties with Israel. This Arab country has suffered hard under the US sanctions and is still on the list of "Terror Sponsoring States" but it's not an easy decision in a country where Palestinian cause enjoys widespread support on the street.

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Will Washington succeed in pushing Sudan closer to Israel? Question becomes important as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Sudan Tuesday on a tour urging more Arab countries to normalise ties with Israel, following the US-brokered Israel-UAE agreement.

Pompeo, the first American top diplomat to visit Sudan since Condoleezza Rice went in 2005, arrived on a historic “first official non-stop flight” from Tel Aviv, he tweeted from the plane.

US attempts to improve Sudan-Israel ties

Israel remains technically at war and has no formal diplomatic relations with Sudan – an East African country with strong historical support for Palestinian cause. Sudan also supported Islamist forces under its former strongman Omar al-Bashir who has strong ant-west views.

But now Sudan’s new joint civilian-military transitional government has vowed to break with the Bashir era following his ouster last year amid enormous pro-democracy protests. Many analysts believe that protests enjoyed outside support.

Read more: Pompeo to tour middle-east after finalisation of UAE-Israel deal

US is not putting any gloss on its ambitions – it is making it clear that Washington wants Sudan to come close to Israel. Pompeo met Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Sovereign Council chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan for talks the State Department had said would express US “support for deepening the Sudan-Israel relationship”.

Sudan has been under pressure because of prolonged US sanctions and because of the continuing in the list of “state sponsors of terrorism”. It has launched sweeping social and political reforms, hopes Washington will soon take it off its blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism as it seeks to fully re-integrate into the international community.

Hamdok wrote on Twitter that he and Pompeo had a “direct & transparent conversation regarding delisting Sudan” from the terror list, on bilateral relations and US government support.

“I continue to look forward to positive tangible steps in supporting the glorious Sudanese revolution,” Hamdok wrote.

US easing sanctions on Sudan in return for its support?

Washington wants Sudan to forge ties with Israel, and both sides have already taken a series of steps towards that end. However Sudan’s approach towards Israel remains less than clear. While it is under the US pressure to normalise ties with Israel, it is also a country where Palestinian cause enjoys widespread support on the street.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Burhan in Uganda in February and later announced that the two leaders had agreed to cooperate towards normalising ties.

Sudan’s cabinet later denied that Burhan had made such a promise, in a context where the topic of normalisation remains highly controversial in much of the Arab world.

Read more: Israel and UAE strike ‘historic’ US-brokered deal for peace

More recently, Sudan’s foreign ministry spokesman Haider Badawi indicated Sudan could favour such an accord, but Foreign Minister Omar Qamareddin then said the issue had “never been discussed by the Sudanese government” and promptly fired the spokesman.

The coalition of parties and civil society groups which led the protest movement, the Forces of Freedom and Change, argued Tuesday that the government has “no mandate” to normalise ties with Israel, pointing to “the right of Palestinians to their land and to a free and dignified life”.

Pompeo’s regional trip, also taking in Bahrain and the UAE, comes in the wake of the landmark August 13 announcement of a normalisation of relations between the Emirates and the Jewish state.

Speaking in Jerusalem on Monday, both Pompeo and Netanyahu said that they were hopeful that other Arab states would follow suit — in part to boost an alliance against their common arch foe Iran.

Sudan has been on Washington’s state sponsors of terror list since 1993 because of its earlier support for and the presence of jihadists, including Osama bin Laden, who lived there for years in the 1990s before heading to Afghanistan.

Read more: Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ is an ‘Israel Lobby’s Master Plan’ against the Muslim World

While the US lifted a 20-year trade embargo against Sudan in October 2017, it kept the country on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and Khartoum has been lobbying hard to have that designation lifted.

Sudan has been in talks on compensating victims of Bashir-era Al-Qaeda attacks, including the 2000 USS Cole bombing in Yemen and the simultaneous 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Immense economic pressures on Sudan

Since January Washington has upgraded its diplomatic representation in Khartoum from the level of charge d’affaires to posting an ambassador.

The Pompeo visit comes as Sudan is in deep economic crisis, hit by the long years of US sanctions and the 2011 secession of the country’s oil-rich south.

Grappling with high inflation and the coronavirus pandemic, the country badly needs more foreign assistance and investment, but that is constrained by the state sponsor of terror designation.

The United Nations says more than 9.6 million people — almost a quarter of Sudan’s population — are suffering severe food insecurity.

Sudan is “extremely keen to have US sanctions lifted and they are under heavy UAE influence,” said Cinzia Bianco, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Read more: The US brokered “Abraham Accord” between Israel and UAE

While Bashir is on trial over the Islamist-backed coup that brought him to power over three decades ago, the new transitional government in Khartoum is at pains to distance itself from his legacy.

It has agreed in principle to hand Bashir over to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for his role in the Darfur conflict on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Conflict broke out in the Darfur region in 2003 when ethnic minority rebels staged an uprising against the government, citing marginalisation and discrimination.

Khartoum responded by unleashing the feared Janjaweed militia, mainly recruited from Arab pastoralist tribes, in a scorched earth campaign that left 300,000 people dead and displaced 2.5 million.

Hamdok has made finding a peace deal with rebel groups a priority, in order to bring stability to restive regions that also include Blue Nile and South Kordofan.

AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk