Oman, Chad and now Sudan: Israel and the wider Mideast puzzle

This was the first power change in Sudan since 1989. But even Omar al-Bashir, the former leader had considered a change in relationship with Israel.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman. (photo credit: GPO/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman.
(photo credit: GPO/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to pull another diplomatic milestone out of his hat on Monday when he met Sudanese leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Uganda. This is an important achievement that dovetails with other diplomatic successes in recent years.
For instance, Netanyahu paid a surprise visit to Oman in October 2018, and Israel renewed ties with Chad in January 2019. The Sudan meeting could be a trial balloon for further Israeli openings in the Middle East, or it could help Sudan with its own relationships with Washington and other countries.
The Sudanese meeting was likely made possible by a change in government in Sudan in August 2019, when Burhan came to power as part of a council that is supposed to run the country for a transitional period. This was the first power change in Sudan since 1989. But even the former leader Omar al-Bashir had considered a change in its relationship with Israel.
Sudan has had other connections to Israeli history. Ethiopian Jews fled to Israel via Sudan in the 1980s. According to AP, in 1985, former Sudanese leader Gaafar Nimeiry met then defense minister Ariel Sharon to discuss the airlift of Ethiopian Jews. An Egyptian journalist claimed the meeting was “arranged by Saudi Arabian multimillionaire Adnan Khashoggi.”
In the last decade, foreign media reports blamed Israel for airstrikes in Sudan. The New York Times alleged an airstrike in 2009, and Reuters said one occurred in 2012. In 2015, foreign media claimed Sudan downed an Israeli drone.
Sudan is an important country because it is part of the Arab League and has been at the center of Riyadh-Ankara rivalry. Turkey had hoped to invest more in Sudan and had leased an island there. Saudi Arabia, which broke ties with Turkish ally Qatar in 2017, has welcomed change in Khartoum.
Israel’s outreach to Chad is important in the Sudanese context. In January 2019, Netanyahu and Chad President Idriss Deby met to renew relations at the Presidential Palace in Ndjamena. The resumption of relations came after decades and heralds greater Israeli involvement in Africa. Netanyahu has pushed for more engagement in Africa, as had former defense minister Avigdor Liberman. That has meant more historic visits and also new envoys posted to Israel.
Sudan is a bit different than some of the other sub-Saharan Africa countries because it has a foot in both Africa and the Arab and Islamic worlds. This makes it a lynchpin like Senegal in West Africa. Senegal is an important diplomatic post for Israel.
Sudan also brings up memories of the Oman trip and other Israeli high-profile trips to the UAE, as well as relatively positive comments coming out of Bahrain. The picture is one of Israel upgrading, quietly, relations with a coterie of states. Netanyahu has openly discussed how Israel is growing its relations with this Arab and Islamic world in recent years. But officially there is not much to show for it in terms of normalization.
The recent “Deal of the Century,” in which envoys from three Arab states were present at the rollout, looked like it might help turn a corner. But the Arab League has said it does not support US President Donald Trump’s plan.
This leaves a mixed message. Formally, the Arab countries are still beholden to the Arab peace initiative of 2002. There won’t be more normalization without some Israeli gesture on the Palestinian issue. On the other hand, the Iranian threat, differences between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and differing views between Egypt and Turkey on Libya and a host of other issues bring Israel and some other states closer due to common interests.
Sudan could be a trial balloon for more relations with the Arab world. The irony of the high-profile meetings with Oman, and now Sudan, is that Israel rarely has high-profile meetings with Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab states it has peace with. Israel and Turkey have diplomatic relations, but Turkey is one of the harshest critics of Israel in the region and regularly hosts Hamas delegations.
When Bashir was still in charge in Sudan, he made the first trip by an Arab leader to Damascus since the civil war in Syria broke out in 2011. That trip, in December 2018, could have been a trial balloon for other states, such as the UAE or Egypt, to open discussions with Damascus. There is interest in bringing Damascus back into the fold after nearly a decade of civil war.
Herein lies the riddle with the complexities of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain form a solid bloc of states. Turkey and Qatar are another bloc. Then there are the divided states. Iraq’s Shi’ite parties are close to Iran and also to the Assad regime, Hezbollah and the Houthis. Qatar and Turkey are linked to the Tripoli-based government in Libya.
The Haftar government of Eastern Libya is linked to Egypt, the UAE and Greece. Jordan and Kuwait are close to the Gulf but more neutral on the Qatar issue. The rebels in northern Syria are linked to Turkey and the Tripoli government. Oman likes to be friends with everyone. Yemen’s government works with the UAE and Saudis against its Houthi rebels. Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, in faraway northwest Africa, try to be neutral, holding meetings with Turkey and others.
Into this mix is Israel and its complex role. Insofar as the Sudan meeting is historic, it will be interesting to see if something more comes of it. The Oman meeting was important, but it was unclear if anything was built on it. Oman had positive things to say about Israel at meetings in Bahrain and in Jordan in 2018-2019. But then things seemed to go cold.
Oman is now working often with Iran and with the US to discuss US-Iran tensions. Similarly there have not been major developments in the UAE or Bahrain, also overshadowed by tensions with Iran and the US role in the Gulf.