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Israel preoccupied with domestic ills as ties warm with Khartoum

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Oct 26, 2020

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a press conference Saturday night to formally announce the establishment of diplomatic relations with Sudan. The news first broke with an Oct. 23 phone call between US President Donald Trump, Netanyahu and the two Sudanese leaders: head of the Transitional Council Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdoc. As the phone call took place as Shabbat started in Israel, Netanyahu had to wait a day to personally share the news.

Netanyahu begun his press conference by saying that Sudan was an enemy state for many years, that it participated in a war against Israel and that Iran had used Sudanese territory to smuggle arms to Hamas. He said that peace with Sudan would bring economic benefits for Israel, that normalizing ties will “be good for our pockets.” Netanyahu presented a map showing how Israeli planes will now be able to fly over Sudan on a faster route to South America, noting that the change will “save many flying hours and so lots of money.” Netanyahu called the deal with Sudan part of a “diplomatic tsunami” and expects more countries to follow suit in the coming days. News analysts noted during the weekend that Trump’s administration might press for one more agreement with Israel before Nov. 3.

Shortly after the press conference, Netanyahu tweeted, “In Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, in 1967 the Arab League adopted its three ‘No’s’: ‘No to peace with Israel, no to recognition of Israel and no to negotiations with Israel.'” He added, “However, today Khartoum has said, ‘Yes to peace with Israel, yes to recognition of Israel and yes to normalization with Israel.’”

The normalization agreement with the Emirates and the “Declaration of Peace” with Bahrain both referred to the need to advance a solution for the Palestinian issue, which Friday’s declaration did not address. Still, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi tweeted, “This is a courageous & historic decision that contributes towards a future of stability & prosperity in the entire Middle East. I call on other states as well as the Palestinian leadership to choose the path of peace and change the Middle East for the future of our children.”

Ashkenazi made no mention of Netanyahu. Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz took his time to tweet on the issue, focusing on the dispute over the imminent US sale of F-35 jets to the Emirates. While multiple Sudanese leaders were part of the talks for peace, Netanyahu did not include Gantz in the negotiations. Netanyahu’s opponents from the opposition did not congratulate him, though the deals the Emirates and Bahrain were hailed by opposition leader Yair Lapid and by his colleagues. Rather, the opposition focused on the coronavirus and economic crises and the anti-Netanyahu demonstrations that took place Saturday night across the country.

In a way, peace with Sudan is more meaningful for Israelis than normalization with the Emirates or Bahrain. The two countries were not at war, but Sudanese soldiers participated in the 1967 Six-Day War and the country has long defended the Palestinian cause. Its relations with Iran have known ups and downs over the years, but it is clear that the strategic location of Sudan on the shores of the Red Sea is important for Israel’s security. In contrast, an Israeli diplomat has been quietly but not secretly stationed in Abu Dhabi for several years now as representative to the International Renewable Energy Agency, and a clandestine Israeli diplomatic office apparently operated in Manama for almost a decade.

Sudan’s announcement generated little excitement among the Israeli public. Israelis are expected to flock to Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Manama for vacation, but probably not to Khartoum. Ties between these two Gulf countries are taking shape rapidly, with concrete progress in the fields of technology cooperation, business, tourism and aviation. The deal with Sudan still needs parliamentary approval, which could take a while, as the country is still in a transitional phase working toward new elections.

Netanyahu announced yesterday that Israel is sending wheat to Sudan. His office tweeted, “We are looking forward to a warm peace and are sending $5 million worth of wheat immediately to our new friends in Sudan. Israel will be working closely with the USA to assist Sudan’s transition.” The deal with Sudan will reportedly also include aid and investment from Israel, especially in technological exchanges in smart agriculture and other fields, domains that might also offer business opportunities for Israeli companies.

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