WASHINGTON – Landmark Sudan-Israel deal to start normalizing relations risks crumbling just over a month after President Trump’s announcement, revealing a crack in Middle East peace deals he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have sought to cement as a legacy of foreign policy.
Sudan was the third Arab state to accept the Abraham’s accords brokered by Trump that opened up new economic and diplomatic partnerships with Israel. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed the agreements in September, and just last week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo predicted that other Sunni Muslim countries in the Middle East would soon follow suit.
Sudan has reluctantly agreed to open relations with Israel – but only as part of a deal to be removed from a State Department’s list of states sponsoring terrorism – and wants Congress to approve by the next. end of the year legislation that would protect it from terrorism-related prosecutions.
The new deadline and recent negotiations between lawmakers and representatives of Sudan were described to the New York Times by five officials and others familiar with the talks on the condition that they were not identified.
That it could jeopardize the rapprochement with Israel is a by-product of what Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security, has described as rushed efforts by the administration. Trump to win a foreign policy victory ahead of the November 3 presidential election.
“All of this felt forced from the start by an administration that wanted to use a terrorism designation as a political tool to try to achieve normalization with Israel,” Goldenberg said. “When you prepare these kinds of very transactional deals with unrelated elements that don’t make a lot of sense, sometimes it happens.”
Without Congress-approved immunity, foreign investors may be reluctant to do business with Sudan for fear of potentially ending up funding billions of dollars in compensation for victims of terrorism.
Without foreign investment, Sudan’s transitional government has little hope of lifting its country out of widespread poverty and instability – a crisis that has been exacerbated by the influx of around 43,000 Ethiopian refugees fleeing a civil war in the other side of the border.
Mr Pompeo spoke to Sudan’s de facto leader, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan on Monday, who made it clear that the East African nation will not go ahead with the warming relations with Israel before Congress passes the so-called legal peace law.
A person familiar with the conversation said Mr. Pompeo assured General al-Burhan that the immunity plan would be approved in the coming weeks. Trump administration officials are already planning a signing ceremony with Sudanese officials at the White House in late December.
State Department spokespersons declined to comment and the Israeli embassy in Washington, which closely follows the negotiations, did not respond to a request for comment.
But Congress is deadlocked on legal peace legislation, which would essentially prevent victims of past terrorist attacks from seeking further compensation in Sudan. If a compromise can be reached quickly, it could be included in a major military spending bill that Congress is expected to approve within the next two weeks, according to a Senate official who is working to break the deadlock.
As part of the State Department’s delist of terrorism agreement, Sudan agreed to pay $ 335 million to settle the legal claims of victims of the 1998 attacks against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania . The double explosions, carried out by Al Qaeda militants with assistance from Sudan, killed 224 people, including 12 US citizens; thousands more were injured.
Most of the money, as negotiated between Sudan and the State Department, will go to victims who were US citizens at the time of the explosion. But other victims – nearly all of whom are black and including those who have since become U.S. citizens – will receive much less compensation.
Some lawmakers, including Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, have opposed the disparity in payment for victims who were naturalized citizens after the attacks. None of the victims will receive compensation until the immunity legislation has been approved; if this does not happen by November 2021, the funds will be released to an escrow account and returned to the government of Sudan.
Lawmakers are also divided over protecting Sudan from future court rulings that could compel Khartoum to compensate the families of the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks. These families work with lawmakers in the New York area, including the Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, to preserve their demands to hold Sudan partly responsible for the five years he harbored Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the Al Qaeda attacks, between 1991 and 1996.
Officials close to the negotiations said the two senators acknowledged Sudan’s fragile economic situation and described them as keen to resolve the dispute.
But, officials said, any compromise should allow families of 9/11 victims to seek compensation from Sudan – even if that means the United States must help Khartoum figure out how to pay those claims years from now. Additionally, officials said, the State Department should not have promised Congress would do otherwise in diplomatic negotiations to remove Sudan from the terrorism list.
A person familiar with Sudan’s negotiating position found this unacceptable.
It’s unclear what will happen if the dispute is not resolved by the end of the year. But all parties agreed it could get worse indefinitely as Congress turns to more immediate priorities with the new administration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.
“I hope it doesn’t collapse,” Goldenberg said of Sudan’s detente with Israel, “but I’m not necessarily surprised at all.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.