Oct 28, 2020 - World

Scoop: Secret Israel-Sudan contacts enabled deal sealed by Trump

Trump on the phone with the leaders of Sudan and Israel. Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty

While the U.S. officially brokered the Israel-Sudan normalization deal, it was Israel that facilitated talks between the U.S. and Sudan on the broader deal that included Sudan’s removal from America’s state sponsors of terrorism list.

Why it matters: Israel’s secret contacts with Sudanese officials paved the way for a deal that was nearly a year in the making.

  • This story is based on the accounts of four U.S. and Israeli officials who were involved in the process but declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the talks.

Flashback: In early 2019, Sudan’s then-dictator Omar al-Bashir reached out to Israel amid a desperate attempt to hold onto power.

  • Bashir spoke several times with an Israeli intelligence officer-turned-diplomat nicknamed “Maoz,” who previously spent many years handling the Shin Bet intelligence agency’s assets inside Hamas in Gaza.
  • Maoz had a new role inside Netanyahu’s office: developing relationships with countries in Africa and the Arab world that didn’t have diplomatic ties with Israel.
  • Israel was willing to listen to Bashir but not to provide him assistance, Israeli officials say.

Last January, several months after Bashir was toppled, Netanyahu proposed a meeting with the head of Sudan’s transitional government, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, to discuss normalization.

  • Nick Kaufman, a British-Israeli lawyer who was advising the new Sudanese government on Bashir’s potential extradition to the International Criminal Court, touched down in Khartoum bearing the letter from Netanyahu. He returned with a positive reply from Burhan.
  • Najwa Gadaheldam, a close adviser to Burhan who had also advised Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, worked with Maoz to secretly arrange a meeting in Uganda under Moseveni’s auspices.
  • The meeting on Feb. 3 constituted a historic breakthrough in Israeli-Sudanese relations. Burhan was prepared to immediately proceed with normalization, but Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok — who had been left in the dark about the meeting — vehemently objected, Israeli officials say.

The Israeli elections and the COVID-19 pandemic put the Sudan-Israel track on the back burner, though Maoz continued to speak each week with Burhan or his aides.

  • Sudan allowed Israeli planes to use Sudanese airspace for the first time in March as they evacuated Israelis from South Africa and Latin America.
  • The Israelis later sent a medical team to Sudan in May when Gadaheldam became ill with COVID-19. She was too ill to be evacuated to Israel and died a few days after the doctors arrived.

Behind the scenes: When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Israel in April, Netanyahu lobbied him to view Sudan as an opportunity and open a direct channel of communication with Burhan. Their first call was facilitated by the Israelis and came days after that visit.

  • Progress between the U.S. and Sudan moved slowly for several months.
  • Then, when the UAE agreed to normalize relations with Israel, the U.S. began to look for more countries to follow suit.
Pompeo (L) meets with Hamdok in Khartmoum. Photo: Handout via Getty Images

The Israelis proposed that the Trump administration merge its dialogue with Sudan with the Israel-Sudan talks on normalization. The UAE made a similar proposal.

  • Sudan was high on the agenda when Pompeo visited Israel in late August, and the Israelis facilitated a direct flight for him from Tel Aviv to Sudan.
  • Pompeo's advisers were briefed by Netanyahu's aides, who even offered advice on how to handle the talks.
  • Burhan was anxious to seal a deal involving both the terror list and normalization, but he needed Hamdok to agree.

When Pompeo met Hamdok, he proposed a deal: Sudan would be removed from the terror list, receive a U.S aid package and normalize relations with Israel.

  • Pompeo told Hamdok that Trump was ready to make the deal right away. He even proposed a call with Trump and Netanyahu to seal the deal, but Hamdok demurred.
  • Over the next few weeks, Israeli officials including Ambassador Ron Dermer continued to lobby the Trump administration to make the deal, with Netanyahu suggesting the U.S. provide more incentives to Sudan.
  • On the U.S. side, Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and his senior adviser Aryeh Lightstone also pressed for a deal

By Sept. 21, it seemed a deal was imminent. The Emiratis and Israelis organized a meeting in Abu Dhabi between a senior Sudanese delegation and a White House team led by Gen. Miguel Correa, the National Security Council director for Africa and the Gulf.

  • But after two days of negotiations, the talks exploded.
  • One reason was the big gap between the aid package the Sudanese expected and the one the U.S. was offering.
  • Another was a cultural clash and language barriers caused messages from the sides to get lost in translation. The negotiators butted heads and the talks broke down.
  • The Israelis and Emiratis worked to ease tensions and bring the sides closer together — warning the Sudanese that they'd never get such a good offer after the U.S. election, while pressing the Americans to sweeten the deal.
  • After a short lull, the talks resumed. Correa and White House envoy Avi Berkowitz spoke to the Sudanese ambassador in Washington, Pompeo continued to speak with Hamdok, and the Israelis and Emiratis continued lobbying both sides.

At what would prove to be a decisive meeting on Oct. 21 in Khartoum, talks nearly broke down again over the sequencing of the elements of the deal.

  • The U.S. wanted Sudan to announce a normalization agreement with Israel first, or at least in tandem with the announcement on the terror list.
  • They eventually gave in to the Sudanese insistence that the terror designation be lifted first.

Two days later, with Netanyahu and Sudanese leaders on the phone and the TV cameras rolling, Trump announced the deal.

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