A Sudan-Israel peace deal could be Trump's crowning achievement

5 December 2020

3:47 AM

5 December 2020

3:47 AM

Twitter is not always kind to the Jewish state. But the peace accord between Israel, UAE and Bahrain that was signed in Washington in September has opened the floodgates to a social media love-in. In one video, recently shared by Ivanka Trump, an Israeli called Amit Deri expresses his astonishment at finding produce from his country in a food market in Dubai. Elsewhere, in pictures that were shared thousands of times, a vast Emirati flag is seen projected onto the façade of Tel Aviv’s city hall. Even Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has got involved, posting in Arabic this week to mark UAE’s national day, alongside a video in which he referred to the Arab state as ‘our new friends’.

These were not empty tweets. Joint initiatives have been announced almost daily, from collaboration between Israeli and Arab newspapers to the opening of a Jewish school in Dubai – not to mention meaningful cooperation on trade and tourism. It is no surprise that, having been treated like a pariah for decades, Israel’s Twitter community is displaying existential levels of relief. But amid the flurry of memes and hashtags, an even more important peace agreement is in danger of collapse.

In the sweltering heat of the late summer of 1967, the impoverished North African state of Sudan became synonymous with the most anti-Israel pronouncement in history. Two months earlier, Israel had all but obliterated three Arab armies in the Six Day War. In response, the Arab League met in the Sudanese capital to issue a notorious resolution dubbed the ‘Three Nos of Khartoum’: no to peace, no to recognition, no to negotiation.

For decades, this became the regional benchmark. Yet in October, Israel and Sudan agreed to normalise relations, marking the greatest advance for peace since the Jordan agreement 26 years ago. The pivot from foe to friend – Sudanese troops have seen action against Israel in the past – was far more dramatic than those of the UAE and Bahrain the previous month. This made it an extraordinary landmark on the road to peace.

This week, however, Khartoum applied the brakes, demanding that Congress grants immunity from terror charges before any deal is finalised. Given the helter-skelter nature of the Trump-Biden transition period, this is no simple matter. A deal with Sudan has always been ambitious. It required serious American incentives to lure Khartoum to the negotiating table, including a promise to remove it from the State Department’s list of sponsors of terrorism and a reported £3 billion in aid.

From a Sudanese point of view, legal immunity is another vital piece of the puzzle. Without it, potential foreign investors would be spooked by fears of hefty compensation payouts in the future. According to the New York Times, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised that immunity would be conferred by late December, when a peace ceremony is already pencilled in. But nerves on all sides are jangling.

None more so, perhaps, than in Jerusalem. Sudan, a war-ravaged, poorly-educated and largely agrarian state, may lack the charisma of its flashy Gulf counterparts. But even without any ‘I heart Sudan’ hashtags, this deal is a serious geostrategic goal for the Israelis. For decades, Khartoum has punched above its weight in the gruesome league table of states that sponsor terror. Sitting on the shores of the Red Sea, the predominantly Arab country controls maritime routes towards the port of Eilat, and has been a major player in smuggling arms to Gaza and the Sinai.

When Omar al-Bashir – who later gained notoriety as the butcher of Darfur – seized power in 1989, he lost no time in fast-tracking the country to Islamisation, teaming up with Tehran and acting as a bridge for the theocracy’s interests in North Africa. Not only did Sudan become a key arms supplier to Hamas, Hezbollah and militants in Yemen and Somalia, but in the early Nineties it offered a safe haven to Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda goons after they were hounded out of Saudi Arabia.

The country soon became a theatre for a covert conflict. Following its ‘Campaign Between Wars’ strategy, the Jewish state sought to maintain its security by launching attack after attack on Iranian interests in the country. In 2009, Israeli warplanes destroyed a convoy of trucks that were said to be transporting Tehran’s missiles to Hamas, and naval commandos attacked an Iranian arms ship in Port Sudan. In 2012, a weapons factory near Khartoum, reportedly belonging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, was blown up in what was widely believed to be an Israeli operation. These are only some of the raids that were reported.

In Israeli eyes, peace with Sudan would be a gamechanger on a number of levels. Not only would it create a greatly enhanced security landscape to the south, permanently locking out Iranian interests, but it would send a powerful message to others in the region that no hatred is too bitter to overcome.

Muslim-majority countries like Mali, Niger and Mauritania – maybe even Somalia and Libya – will be watching carefully. With up to 80 per cent of Sudanese scratching a living from the land, Israeli agricultural expertise could be of profound benefit, showcasing the Jewish state’s reinvention as a prize Arab ally.

So why the sudden hesitation from Khartoum? The answer is rooted in internal tensions. After Bashir was ousted in a coup last year, the country was placed under the care of a ‘provisional government’ of military and civilian factions, until a promised election in 2022.

The military figures, chairman Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the national rottweiler Muhammad Hamdan ‘Hemedti’ Dagalo, have traditionally been in favour of peace with Israel. Civilian leaders such as prime minister Abdalla Hamdok are said to be less convinced.

In truth, by the twilight of Bashir’s rule, Sudan had already fallen out of love with Iran. It joined the Saudi coalition in Yemen in 2015, and severed diplomatic ties with Tehran the following year. Despite its continued links with Qatar and Turkey, this brought it into Israel’s wider orbit.

Over the last three years, the US has steadily been lifting trade embargoes on the country. And as a further taste of the rewards on offer, UAE, Israel’s new friend, has started investing heavily in Sudan, seeking to draw the country deeper into Western-friendly embrace.

From the point of view of Sudan’s military chiefs, building on this trajectory makes sense. Not only would a peace deal win international legitimacy and enable an Egypt-style military cooperation with Israel, it would camouflage their personal complicity in the Darfur atrocities.

Sanitising the country’s pariah status, they argue, would open the door to wider foreign investment, which is sorely needed with 43,000 Ethiopian refugees fleeing across the border from the conflict in Tigray. Civilian leaders, meanwhile, are wary of provoking a Sudanese public that has long subsisted on a diet of anti-Israel propaganda. Hamdok has dragged his feet in the peace talks, trying to persuade Pompeo to wait until the 2022 elections.

After decades of civil war, military coups and regional power games, Sudan is in a period of transition, making the popular mood hard to read. While the prospect of a peace deal was met with a smattering of demonstrations on the streets of Khartoum, this has not developed into a wider movement.

One poll found that 32 per cent of the Sudanese public believed Arab states should coordinate foreign policy with Israel. Another, however, suggested that a similar number saw the Jewish state as Sudan’s ‘greatest threat to stability’.

Either way, much work is to be done. Seen through Israeli eyes, despite the economic incentives – including tasty local projects once electricity is pumped out from a huge new dam in neighbouring Ethiopia – it’s not easy to get into bed with an unstable country run by a junta with such a bloody record.

Given the complicated backstory, if the Trump administration does sneak a peace deal over the line, we’re unlikely to see Twitter lighting up with Sudan-Israeli love. Some bad blood is hard to expunge.

But there is more at stake here than social media likes. In the hard light of geopolitics, a cold peace with a sworn enemy can be more valuable than videos of effusive Israelis retweeted by Ivanka Trump. If the pieces do fall into place, a Sudan deal could be one of the most important moves Trump makes for the region before his curtain call.

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