Shift in Middle East? After UAE, more hostile nations close to peace deals with Israel

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On Tuesday, news broke that Israel and Sudan are close to reaching a peace agreement, setting the stage for a second dramatic diplomatic breakthrough for Israel with its Arab neighbours in a matter of days. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) had signed a historic peace deal with Israel earlier in the week, becoming the third Arab nation after Egypt and Jordan to do so. Coming after a lot of backdoor negotiations, the UAE-Israel deal evinced a “strategic agenda” for the Middle East to expand “diplomatic, trade, and security cooperation”, noting that the two nations “shared a similar outlook regarding the threats and opportunities in the region”.

A Sudanese foreign ministry official announced that his government is looking forward to concluding a peace agreement with Israel; in response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement that he will do all that is needed to wrap up a deal.

What is the significance of such a deal? While Sudan does not have the resources and influence of the UAE, it has a far more hostile history toward Israel. Sudan hosted the landmark Arab conference after the 1967 Middle East War where eight Arab countries approved the three 'no's: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations. Under long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir, Sudan has also served as a pipeline for Iran to supply weapons to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

In 1993, the US had designated Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism for its support of a number of anti-Israel militant groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah. But in recent years those hostilities softened, and both countries have expressed readiness to normalise relations.

Also, Israel has long courted African support. In exchange for its expertise in security and other fields, Israel wants African states to side with it at the UN General Assembly and other international bodies that have long favoured the Palestinians. Israel renewed diplomatic relations with Guinea in 2016. Netanyahu visited Chad for a renewal of ties in 2019.

If Sudan inks the deal, it is looking more and more likely that other hostile territories would normalise relations with Israel. After Thursday's announcement with the UAE, Netanyahu had predicted that other Arab countries would soon follow suit.

There are also domestic Israeli factors pushing for a Middle East normalisation. A deal with Sudan could also give Netanyahu a boost at home. Netanyahu has seen his personal popularity drop due to the coronavirus crisis, which has ravaged the Israeli economy. He also faces widespread criticism while on trial for charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

What next?

News agency Reuters quoted a Sudanese foreign ministry spokesman as saying his government looked forward to a peace agreement based on equality and Sudanese interests. "There is no reason to continue hostility between Sudan and Israel, the spokesman," Haidar Badawi, was quoted as saying. "We don't deny that there are communications with Israel," he added, "saying both countries would gain much from a deal."

In a statement, Netanyahu said Israel, Sudan and the entire region will benefit. "We will do all that is needed to turn this vision into a reality," he said.

According to numerous international reports, in February, Netanyahu had secretly met General Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the head of Sudan's transitional government, during a trip to Uganda where they pledged to pursue normalisation. 

What would it mean for the Palestinians?

After the UAE deal, the Palestinian Authority had issued a scathing statement, calling the Emirati move "treason" and betrayal of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinian cause. The Palestinian ambassador to UAE was recalled after the move.

An Israeli deal with Sudan would mark a new setback for the Palestinians, who have long counted on the Arab world to press Israel to make concessions to them as a condition for normalisation. But, with Mideast peace efforts frozen for over a decade and with encouragement from the Trump administration, Arab countries seem to be looking to put their own interests first.

Sudan is desperate to lift sanctions linked to its listing by the US as a state sponsor of terror—a key step toward ending its isolation and rebuilding its economy after the popular uprising that toppled dictator al-Bashir last year.

According to news agency AP, a Sudanese official had acknowledged in February that the meeting with Netanyahu was orchestrated by the United Arab Emirates and aimed at helping to remove the terror listing, which dates back to the 1990s when Sudan briefly hosted Osama bin Laden and other wanted militants.

(The story first appeared in The Week)

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