Why was Mossad meeting in Sudan with coup leaders? - analysis

Sources indicate that the Foreign Ministry has taken a bigger role in Israeli-Sudanese relations since the government formed in June.

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

What was the Mossad doing in Sudan this past week just as the latest Sudanese coup was playing out?

The answer is no one knows for sure, but there are plenty of hints for educated speculation.

First, the Mossad visit did not come out of nowhere.

Although some sources indicate that the Foreign Ministry has taken a bigger role in Israeli-Sudanese relations since the current government formed in mid-June, the normalization wave between the countries was built-up by the Mossad, with a later assist from former national security council chief Meir Ben-Shabbat.

Just after the new government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid took power in mid-June, news broke that senior Sudanese civilian officials were complaining to both Israeli government and US government officials about uncoordinated side-Mossad contacts with Sudanese military officials.

Would a government of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid really be a potential leftist disaster? (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER)Would a government of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid really be a potential leftist disaster? (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER)

The Jerusalem Post learned that the side contacts were part of an ongoing rivalry between the Mossad and Ben-Shabbat for influence with power centers in Sudan.

Until last week, there were at least three key figures currently in Sudan.

Ben-Shabbat had been dealing more directly with Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Burhan, the chairman of Sudan’s governing council, who leads the current coup.

In the past, Mossad’s Yossi Cohen, who retired as director on June 1, had ties to Burhan and helped arrange a key meeting between former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Burhan.

But at some point, the Post understands that Cohen started working more directly through just recently deposed Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

Under Cohen, and there are indications also under Cohen’s successor, current Mossad Director David Barnea, the Mossad has also operated ties with Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemetti.

Technically, Hemetti is Burhan’s deputy and his co-star in the coup against Hamdok.

However, that is just on a formal level.

Underneath the formalities, Hemetti may be the true power in Sudan since he controls the largest and most powerful military force – a seasoned militia that far outshines the country’s military.

Hemetti is credited by many as the true figure who toppled the country’s former 25-year dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

Moreover, Hemetti has stayed carefully out of the limelight during the current coup, potentially positioning himself to take down Burhan if the initial coup goes sideways.

The coup also did not come out of nowhere.

There was a failed coup last month, allegedly by Bashir supporters in the military.

FOLLOWING THAT failed coup it seemed that Hamdok started to go on a broader political counter-attack on the military leading into this time period when Burhan was meant to turn over additional authorities to him.

So the latest coup does very much seem to be Burhan’s having lost patience with Hamdok and his desire to frame the next phase of elections and democratic transition – if in fact he is willing to relinquish military rule in 2023 as he says.

One question then both in June and during last week’s visit is whether the Mossad is playing its cards carefully and flexibly for Israel in case Hemetti takes over at some point or whether the past Ben-Shabbat-Mossad rivalry is being replaced with some kind of Mossad-Foreign Ministry rivalry.

Neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the Foreign Ministry would comment on the record, but the Post has learned that the Foreign Ministry is more in the picture than it was under Netanyahu.

In addition, Israeli officials under Netanyahu were cognizant of the mix of Israeli and Sudanese rivalries, and some in Jerusalem even got an earful from the Sudanese about it.

After all of this fascinating survey of the rivalries, the new question now as opposed to back in June, is whether Israel actually needs to take a side.

Should it be Burhan or Hemetti, who may be more committed to normalization with Israel, especially if the Jewish state can help with relations with Washington?

Or should Israel be aligning with Hamdok, like much of the world’s democracies, even though he seems to have been more hesitant about relations with Israel?

Some Israeli officials do feel that Jerusalem cannot be seen as undermining Sudan’s democratic processes and transitions regardless of other considerations.

But leaks that the latest meeting was with Hemetti or his brother and that their camp had recently visited Israel could be a sign of where Jerusalem is leaning. There are mixed reports about whether Israeli officials met with Hamdok as well.

Also, Israel has not condemned the coup like most democratic countries have.

Another narrative is that Israel will not choose sides, but merely wanted to have eyes on the ground to get an updated lay of the land, so that it can continue to play as many sides as needed to keep normalization on course.

Regardless of which direction Israel chooses, there are serious pitfalls and booby traps along the way – and whether the Mossad or the Foreign Ministry, it will take a master trapeze artist to avoid falling.