Why Trump wants Sudan to befriend Israel
Trump silhouetted over the flags of Israel and Sudan
With Sudan's dire straits - a collapsing economy, looming hyperinflation and a nationwide food crisis - the administration of US President Donald Trump and the Israeli government saw an opportunity.
The country's democratic hopes are hanging by a thread 18 months after the overthrow of nonviolent protests against long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir.
But if Sudan recognizes Israel, the US will remove it from the state sponsors of the terrorist list and open the door to essential economic stabilization measures.
"After President Bashir took power in a military coup in 1989, he turned Khartoum into a global center for militant jihadism", source: Alex de Waal, source description: Sudan analyst, image: Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir rides a horse, to greet followers in 1992
It's a complicated story that goes back 30 years to the early days of the Islamist government in Sudan.
After President Bashir took power in a military coup in 1989, he turned Khartoum into a global center for militant jihadism.
Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups used Sudan as a base for terrorist attacks in the US, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and elsewhere.
After the first terrorist attack on New York's World Trade Center in 1993, the United States named Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism.
International financial sanctions and military pressure from neighboring countries that supported Sudanese rebels pushed Sudan three years later to evict Osama bin Laden and other jihadists.
Shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Sudan's security services became a valued partner of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
On this basis, Sudan should have been removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Despite the celebrations following Sudan's transition to democracy last year, US sanctions have not been lifted
But members of Congress were hostile to Khartoum for a number of other reasons, including the war in Darfur and human rights abuses, and the listing persisted.
And the Bashir government was still operating in the shadows: it kept its ties with Iran and Hamas open, and at least twice Israeli fighter jets attacked convoys on the Red Sea coast in Sudan, allegedly taking weapons to Hamas.
Under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Bashir government cut ties with Iran in 2016.
But after the Democratic Revolution last year, Washington DC was slow to change.
U.S. State Department officials wanted to keep leverage as one of their most powerful tools. And they were concerned that the new democratic regime might not last long.
Senators block the removal of the terrorist list
The problem was that maintaining sanctions against Sudan could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy and doom the country to a state failure.
As long as Sudan remains on the blacklist, crippling financial sanctions will remain. Legitimate Sudanese businesses are hampered, FDI is tied up and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank cannot adopt a debt relief package - $ 72 billion (£ 55.6 billion) and count.
More than 860,000 people were affected by unprecedented flooding in Sudan this year
The extent of today's hunger is alarming: The UN classifies 9.6 million people as "seriously unsafe for food".
This is made worse by the Covid-19 shutdown and flooding. It is a crisis that cannot be overcome by handing out food - it requires a massive injection of economic aid.
In recent months, a congressional deletion of the terrorist list has been slowly taking place, but has been halted by claims by relatives of the victims of al-Qaeda attacks in East Africa and Yemen for compensation.
Sudan agreed to a $ 335 million package. But in September two Democratic senators - Chuck Schumer and Bob Menendez - blocked the move, partly because they wanted to keep the prospects of the relatives of the victims of September 11th open to start a case.
The Trump administration offers Sudan a way out.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Khartoum in August to offer Sudanese Prime Minister Hamdok a deal
During a visit to Khartoum in late August, Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo proposed an agreement to the Sudanese civilian premier Abdalla Hamdok: If Sudan recognizes Israel, President Trump would bypass the blockade of Congress.
According to the UAE's decision last month, Sudan, a member of the Arab League, would only be the fifth Arab state to do so.
This would be a huge boost to the government's campaign to normalize Arab relations with Israel in the weeks leading up to the elections.
Recognizing Israel would be a significant step for Sudan - that is indeed the point.
Good deal for the generals
The loudest opponents of the move are the Islamists, who now have no power. But it is controversial across the political spectrum, and the civil coalition includes many who first insist on peace with the Palestinians.
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Mr Hamdok knows that his coalition of civilian supporters would likely fall apart if he made the decision.
He told Mr Pompeo that a decision on the matter should wait for a democratically elected government, due in three years.
Although Mr Hamdok and his civil cabinet are in office, it is the generals of Sudan who wield real power.
With the support of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the Chairman of the Transitional Council, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and his deputy, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known as "Hemeti", command troops and money.
Suds Gen Burhan (R), who heads the transitional council, is one of the officers who wield real power in Sudan
And it is these generals who have to do with Israel. Gen Burhan met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February - without informing Mr Hamdok - and the two will meet again soon.
For Gen Burhan and Gen Hemeti, the US-Israel accord promises the international recognition they yearn for, without the inconvenience of democracy.
That is why Sudanese Democrats are calling for careful scrutiny.
When the population's protests drove Bashir out in April of last year, Gen Burhan and Gen Hemeti took command. Two months later, their troops killed over 100 protesters.
This caused an outcry that they agreed in a deal brokered by the US, UK, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to share power with a civil cabinet.
The bottom line is that the military only tolerates the civilian population because they need international integrity. The Sudanese public has not forgiven the generals for their brutality and venality.
The older generation remembers Operation Moses, the secret agreement between then President Jaafar Nimeiri from 1984, according to which Israel is supposed to evacuate Ethiopian Jews from refugee camps in Sudan. Nimeiri was later charged with collecting millions in bribes from Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency.
Israel and the Ethiopian Jews:
The Sudanese holiday village run by Israeli spies
A cabal of officer businessmen controls huge shady trading empires that were built under Bashir and are growing stronger day by day.
When the central bank runs out of money to pay salaries, it asks these generals for cash. If they are rewarded, Sudan remains a kleptocracy.
For Israelis, recognition by another Arab country is certainly a price.
But for the young Israelis and their US counterparts who protested the mass atrocities in Darfur 15 years ago, the legitimation of the men who commanded the militias that carried out these massacres is a morally dubious move.
Mr Hamdok's position is logical: lifting the terror blacklist and recognizing Israel are separate issues.
He argues that Sudan should be removed from the terrorist list immediately for removing terrorists from its soil and because its democracy is worth saving.
And if Israel is recognized by a truly democratic Arab nation, that would be a prize worth winning.
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Alex de Waal is Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in the USA.
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