From Libya to Sudan: Israel’s North Africa policies in spotlight

In early October, reports emerged that a Sudanese security delegation had visited Israel

 Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll and Sudanese Justice Minister Nasredeen Abdulbari meet in Abu Dhabi on October 13, 2021. (photo credit: FOREIGN MINISTRY)
Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll and Sudanese Justice Minister Nasredeen Abdulbari meet in Abu Dhabi on October 13, 2021.
(photo credit: FOREIGN MINISTRY)

In early October, reports emerged that a Sudanese security delegation had visited Israel. Later that month, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan took control of Sudan through a kind of coup that pushed out Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. The move came days after a US envoy had come to Sudan. It’s unclear if Khartoum's leadership coordinated the moves with those they speak within Cairo, Riyadh or the Gulf, but it would be surprising if they didn’t, because Sudan desperately needs support. 

Meanwhile, Israel’s Haaretz reported that Saddam Haftar, the son of Eastern Libya leader Khalifa Haftar, had come to Israel to meet with officials. One report said he offered to have relations with Israel if it would back his father.

This seems far-fetched because Haftar’s chances to take over most of Libya were dashed in the summer of 2020 when Turkey intervened in Libya’s civil war on behalf of the government in Tripoli, pushing Haftar’s Libyan National Army back from the gates of the city. Haftar is backed by Egypt and likely has good ties with Greece, France and others. But he has a long shot to ever actually lead the whole country. He may have reached his high watermark. He’s also not young.

There is no doubt that Haftar consolidated eastern Libya and pushed out extremists through Operation Dignity, launched in 2014. But he has not been able to push the ball the last nine yards into the Tripoli end zone. As such, he is stuck hoping for a compromise. Egypt, Russia and others want him to hold the line; Turkey wants to remove him. But now Ankara is trying to sing a song of pleasantries with Cairo to repair relations, so things may change.

 A road barricade is set on fire during what the information ministry calls a military coup in Khartoum, Sudan, October 25, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/EL TAYEB SIDDIG) A road barricade is set on fire during what the information ministry calls a military coup in Khartoum, Sudan, October 25, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/EL TAYEB SIDDIG)

What is Israel’s side to this? Israel has good relations with Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Sisi came to power in 2013 after the Muslim Brotherhood and its leader Mohammed Morsi appeared poised to plunge Egypt into chaos and extremism.

Acting on the sense that Egyptians didn’t want the kind of chaos unfolding in Iraq and Syria, Sisi moved in after protesters demanded Morsi step down. Turkey had backed Morsi because it is led by the AKP, which is linked to the Brotherhood – which itself is linked to Hamas and has backing from Qatar. That has been the setup in the region for a decade: A Qatar-Turkey-Hamas-Brotherhood alliance system seeking regional domination.  

ISRAEL WAS on the other side of that equation, more closely tied to moderate states like Jordan and Egypt under Sisi – and then, after the Abraham Accords, Israel was openly partnered with the UAE and Bahrain, who themselves are close to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Sudan-Israel ties were a product of that. The Brotherhood had been pushed from power in Sudan in 2019. Omar Bashir, the vicious leader who had run the extremists in charge of Sudan was deposed. 

Burhan had reportedly been close to the Saudis. “Sudanese media and analysts say Burhan coordinated sending Sudanese troops to Yemen as part of a Saudi-led coalition, which intervened from 2015 against Iran-backed Huthi rebels,” France24 says. He also was attache to China, the same report says. This makes him well-placed to understand the world and global changes.

It may be why he waited for US Envoy Jeffrey Feltman to depart, before moving against the prime minister. Saddam Hussein did the same after meeting then-US ambassador April Glaspie in 1990. In the end, Saddam failed in his calculations; Burhan does not intend to do the same.

There is another man in Khartoum: Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, who also serves as deputy head of the Transitional Military Council. He was reportedly the one who led the delegation to Israel in October. But reports have said that while Hemedti believed that the Israel connection could help Sudan, the civilian leadership was more hesitant.

“Unfortunately, even if there are no grounds to believe that Israeli military and intelligence officials were complicit in the military takeover (a possibility about which even some Israeli journalists have openly speculated), Israel is far from an innocent bystander,” according to an analysis in Haaretz by Yonatan Touval, a senior foreign policy analyst at Mitvim: The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

“One size doesn't fit all, he wrote. "Triumphal bombast may suit normalization with the UAE, but it won't work with Saudi Arabia, Djibouti or Iraq. With Sudan, Israel's hubris and complicity with the coup may well blow up in its face.” 

THE QUESTION now is whether the Sudan coup will change things or not. Reports at Walla have said an Israeli delegation was in Khartoum recently. But it’s not clear what is going on behind the scenes, if anything. Less is known about Egypt’s role.

But Cairo has had a number of joint military visits with Sudan in recent years. It wants a Sudan based on the Sisi model of Egypt and it wants Sudanese partnership regarding the Ethiopia Grand Renaissance Dam. Ethiopia’s government is now embattled in a civil war; It is not known what role Egypt or Sudan may have there.

Then, next door, is Chad. Chad had reportedly been willing to open a diplomatic mission to Israel in September 2020. Chad’s cabinet chairman Abdelkerim Deby, the president’s son had visited Israel, reports said. Chad’s leader was killed in battle in April 2021, leaving Abdelkerim and his brother Mahamat Idriss Deby to lead the country. This has led to questions about what comes next for Chad. 

It’s worthwhile to think of all these states as being linked. Egypt wants to have a block of states like Sudan, Chad and Libya it can count on. In the absence of a strong state, it can work with Haftar and others.

While these are huge distances and large states, not so far away from these areas in the Sahel are extremists and chaos in Niger, Nigeria, Mali, tensions between Algeria and Morocco, and lack of clarity about what comes next in Tunisia – as well as a brutal war in the Central African Republic and an ongoing extremist war in Somalia led by Al Shabab.

For Egypt and its Gulf friends, the goal is to shore up the arc of stability and moderation – which is also an arc of authoritarianism or monarchy.  

FOR THE Brotherhood and its leadership this is not welcome news. But Turkey has toned down some of its hostile rhetoric. Nevertheless we can see how Ankara-based media is reporting the Haftar-Israel connection as evidence of something negative. For years, there have been whispers and Israel has been portrayed as linked to Haftar, usually by media linked to Turkey. Turkey even reported via Anadolu media on October 26 that Haftar and Saif al-Islam Gadaffi, son of the former, now deceased president Moamar Gadaffi, had hired an “Israeli firm” that was supposedly based in the UAE in the leadup to Libyan elections.

“The newspaper, citing senior Gulf figures, said Haftar's son signed the contract with the consulting firm which run successful campaigns in Israel and the world,” the report said. Turkish media says that Haftar and Israel have gone from “animosity to alliance.”

The simplistic reading of this is that Haftar can trade recognition for support, but this is not likely. Some Israeli officials have acknowledged that the chance of recognition is not likely either.

So the real story is more complex. It should be seen as part of the overall story of Egypt and the Gulf, and the policies that link Sudan, Eastern Libya and the regional groupings. Sudan likely got what it initially wanted in the fall of 2020 after it agreed to normalization with Israel, but Sudan needs investment and other types of support now, likely far beyond Israel’s interests.

Similarly Haftar’s long-shot to run Libya is one that Egypt needs to keep careful watch over. It is worth remembering that Turkey’s involvement in Libya began after Ankara strong-armed Libya’s weak government into a maritime deal that stretches across the East Med pipeline concept connecting Greece, Israel and Cyprus to places like Italy to France.

This is maritime and geopolitics writ-large. The recent stories about Israel-Sudan and Israel-Libya must be understood in that context, insofar as the origins of these larger groups and partnerships go back many years.