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Israel sees warming ties with Sudan as symbolic progress in hostile region

JERUSALEM – For Israel, the movement towards normalization of relations with Sudan does not represent the same kind of historic strategic achievement as the peace treaties of decades ago with Egypt and Jordan, once bitter Arab enemies at its borders.

Nor does the move open up major new economic opportunities, as Israel’s two new pacts with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, negotiated by the Trump administration in August, did.

All Israelis could truly savor during President Trump’s announcement Friday that he had fostered another diplomatic breakthrough was its symbolic value: Sudan was the scene of the Arab League’s 1967 Khartoum resolution. Shortly after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, League members all swore in the resolution “No to peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel.”

Suddenly Sudan, among all Arab countries, has said yes to all of the above.

In this sense, even the limited economic and trade relations that President Trump controversial Friday as a victory “for world peace” would drive another nail into the coffin of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s old strategy of maintaining Arab solidarity behind the rejection of Israel until the Palestinians establish a state.

The step towards normalizing relations with Israel would also cement a Sudanese strategic realignment that began in 2015, when after decades as an ally of Iran, the African nation abruptly sided with Saudi Arabia in the civil war in Yemen and severed relations with Tehran the following year.

“It was the big turnover, or the tipping point,” Brig said. General Assaf Orion, veteran Israeli military strategist at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “When they’ve gone from being a hub of Iranian arms proliferation in Gaza to at least going on the right side of the Gulf, that’s a substantial thing,” he added.

“When it becomes a diplomatic achievement for Israel,” he said, “that’s also good”.

Dore Gold, former director general of Israel’s foreign ministry with extensive experience in Africa, said Israel and Sudan now share the same view of wanting to deny Iran, which he said once had effective control from Port Sudan, a strategic presence in the Red Sea.

Beyond that, he said: “I think there is a cumulative impact every time you get to another country, especially one of the biggest in Africa, both in terms of population and geographic extent. “

In practice, detente with Sudan could open up a new, albeit small, market for Israel’s agricultural, military and medical industries, experts said. Overflight rights for Israel could also shorten some flights from Tel Aviv to southern Africa or Latin America.

Some analysts also said that with its expertise in desalination and irrigation in a desert climate, Israel could play a role in helping Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia resolve their long-standing disputes on the Nile. blue. Ethiopia is building a massive $ 4.6 billion dam on the river, a dam Trump suggested on Friday that Egypt “eventually blow up” – a comment that angered Ethiopian leaders.

But there were few delusions in Israel about what motivated the Trump administration to rush for Friday’s announcement less than two weeks before election day. Privately, government officials have said that helping Israel could help Mr. Trump take off some Jewish voters in pivotal states like Florida and Pennsylvania.

Mr Trump used the announcement of the Sudan-Israel deal to ridicule his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, from the Oval Office on Friday.

“Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal, Bibi?” Sleepy Joe? Mr Trump asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a TV call on cable news.

Perhaps aware of polls showing the Democratic challenger in the lead, Mr. Netanyahu, who is facing his own political crisis, has refused to attack Mr. Biden.

“We appreciate the help for the peace of anybody in America, ”he replied. “And we really appreciate what you’ve done.”

Irit Bak, an expert from Sudan who heads the African studies department at Tel Aviv University, said she was disgusted by the two besieged leaders’ use of “the situation in Sudan, which is so desperate” , to help themselves politically.

Ms. Bak warned that normalizing relations with Israel posed great peril for the leaders of Sudan, a country with a long history of Islamism. Any flashback could be dangerous for the fragile transitional government, which came to power after the ouster last year of longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir.

Relations between Israel and Sudan have long been a roller coaster ride, often colorful, generally secretive and often confrontational.

In 1948, a small detachment of troops from Sudan, then under Anglo-Egyptian rule, was part of the Arab armies against which Israel fought in its war of independence.

After Sudanese independence in 1956, Israel secretly aided the separatist rebels of Anyanya in southern Sudan, in part to identify as many Egyptian forces as possible, which were aiding the Muslim central government in Khartoum. And Sudan sent a small contingent of troops to aid Egyptian forces in the 1967 war with Israel.

In the 1970s, Israeli pilots operating from Uganda and Kenya dispatched weapons to Anyanya forces, and Israeli agents on the ground helped them ambush government soldiers and bomb bridges across the river. Nile.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews emigrated to Sudan in the hope of making their way to Israel, and Israeli spies mounted a series of daring operations to hunt them down under the authorities’ noses. Sudanese. The operation was run from a hotel on the Sudanese coast, used as a cover for Mossad operatives, in a clandestine operation depicted in the 2019 film “The Red Sea Diving Resort”.

In the 1980s, Israeli officials briefly conspired with Sudanese ruler General Jaafar al-Nimeiry to stockpile weapons in his country for use in attempting to overthrow Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime in Iran. And in 1984, bribes to General al-Nimeiry and his security chief caused the Sudanese to turn a blind eye as Israel airlifted an additional 30,000 Ethiopian Jews from Khartoum.

Yet in 1985, according to Milton Bearden, then chief of the CIA station in Khartoum, two Mossad agents involved in the Ethiopian rescue operations were forced to take refuge in his home. They were eventually smuggled out of Sudan in cargo boxes fitted with oxygen tanks, he said in an interview.

Mr al-Bashir’s 1989 coup, however, led Sudan to take a sharp turn towards Islamism and enter into a long alliance with Iran, which used Sudan to channel weapons to Hamas. in Gaza.

From 2009, Israel carried out airstrikes in Sudan against suspected arms convoys, and in 2012 it bombed an ammunition depot in Khartoum, lighting up the night sky.

In a more recent attempt, the Mossad sent a private plane laden with medical supplies and medics to Khartoum to try to save influential diplomat Najwa Gadaheldam when she fell ill with Covid-19 in May. She did not survive.

It was Ms. Gadaheldam who helped launch the first public meeting between Mr. Netanyahu and Sudanese military leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Kampala, Uganda, in February.

David M. Halbfinger reported from Jerusalem and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv.

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