Sudan has become just the third Arab country to normalize ties with Israel since 1994. Will normalization last? Photo Credit: Anthony Beck/Pexels
Just over a month after it was announced, the normalization deal between Israel and Sudan has come under fire. Sudan’s representatives said they would exit the accords if the U.S. cannot guarantee Sudan’s immunity from future terrorism claims in court, which was initially promised in exchange for normalization.[i] While the Israel-Sudan normalization is symbolic, as Sudan became just the third Arab country to recognize Israel since 1994, normalization was achieved through US diplomatic coercion. In other words, a cash-strapped Sudan agreed to normalize relations with Israel in return for economic aid provided by the U.S. and the removal from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. But now, Congress members are pushing back against giving Sudan full immunity, as their constituents want to maintain the option to sue Sudan for its part in 9/11. This tension is threatening to unravel the normalization deal. Although there is still hope that Israel-Sudan normalization can be saved, it is not surprising that this relationship is already strained. The deal always seemed unsustainable due to Sudan’s lack of political resolve and the transactional circumstances in which it was signed.
Normalization means creating a formally recognized bilateral relationship and usually includes promises to exchange embassies, create economic ties, and engage diplomatically. Most Arab countries refuse to acknowledge Israel’s existence, a tradition dating back to the Sudanese-held 1967 Arab League Summit that dictated “no to peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel.”[ii] Since 1994, there had been no normalization deals – until this year. In August 2020, the United Arab Emirates said it would be the first Arab country to normalize ties without a land concession. Bahrain shortly followed in September, and the two countries signed the symbolic “Abraham Accords” at the White House that month. The Abraham Accords promise people-to-people exchanges, the opening of embassies, military and technological sharing, and economic cooperation.
Sudan followed the UAE and Bahrain in announcing normalization in October 2020, but this deal promised different outcomes. The deal included an agreement to recognize Israel’s existence and “end the state of belligerence between their nations,” along with creating economic and trade relations.[iii] However, the deal did not promise to exchange embassies nor improve cultural relations between the two. This should be viewed as both a sign of Sudan’s reluctance and resignation, as well as a marker of the transactional nature of the deal. In contrast to the UAE and Bahrain, this normalization deal is a “cold” deal – constituted due to Sudan’s poor economic situations and without the strength to last.
Even worse, Israel now finds itself in a precarious position trying to save the deal. Senators Schumer and Menendez maintain that 9/11 victims should be able to litigate against terrorism crimes, including any role Sudan had in the attacks.[iv] Sudan wants full immunity and no future terrorism lawsuits from Americans. With trouble in the air, Sudan’s General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan said the “immunity bill” is a non-negotiable for its role in normalizing with Israel.[v] Israel’s diplomats lobbied U.S. senators last week for Sudan’s immunity, a sign of Israel’s concern about the state of normalization.[vi] Even if Congress finds a compromise, the Israel-Sudan normalization deal is unlikely to last for three reasons: It was achieved coercively, is a bare-bones deal, and was signed under political turmoil in Sudan.
Rather than coming to an organic, mutual decision to normalize based on decades of tacit cooperation like the UAE and Bahrain, the U.S. diplomatically coerced Sudan. Sudan agreed to become the third Arab government, riding on the coattails of the UAE and Bahrain, for one reason – it was financially desperate.[vii] Sudan has many financial problems, including high inflation and debts from its recent civil war, with the coronavirus pandemic only making the situation worse. The Trump administration capitalized on Sudan’s hardship by offering to remove it from the State Sponsors of Terrorism, a list that inhibits Sudan’s chances of obtaining financial relief from international organizations, along with financial aid.[viii]
It is widely agreed that Sudan was reluctant in normalizing and only did so out of desperation. Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security, said that the Trump administration used the terrorism designation as a “political tool” to have Sudan jump on the bandwagon of normalizing states.[ix] For Goldenberg, the problem is that there are many “unrelated items” in this deal that make it easier for it to fail.[x]
By coercing Sudan, the U.S. has robbed the country of its ability to decide for itself whether normalization should occur. Because Sudan did not decide to normalize on its free will, it never had the chance to illustrate its resolve. Freely choosing to normalize, and owning the consequences of this choice, shows more resolve than agreeing under financial duress. As such, countries that do not come freely to decisions are less likely to stay committed to those decisions. Thus, the Israel-Sudan deal is off to a difficult start because of the circumstances in which it was enacted. It is not impossible to sustain, but less likely than the Abraham Accords.
A Bare-Bones Deal
Unfortunately, it is not just how the deal came to be but also what is in the deal. While President Trump is eager to declare the agreement as a victory “for peace in the world,” it does not accomplish nearly as much as the UAE/Bahrain deals.[xi] The Abraham Accords declared a desire for “a world based on mutual understanding and coexistence.” However, the Sudan deal primarily addresses shorter-term goals.[xii] For now, Sudan has agreed to recognize Israel’s existence, establish limited diplomatic relations, and implement some bilateral trade. It does have some sweeping platitudes by striving for “regional security” and advancing “the cause of peace,” but offers few specifics on how this will happen.[xiii] Most importantly, it is not currently clear whether Israel and Sudan will establish mutual embassies.[xiv] It is a sign of reluctance on Sudan’s behalf that it has not committed to this step, a baseline requirement for diplomacy. This hesitancy further hints at the deal’s unsustainability in the future.
The deal also does not have any of the cultural additives that set a stronger foundation for cooperation. Instead of creating people-to-people relations that will establish shared respect for Israeli and Sudanese culture, and Judaism and Islam, the deal is a bare-bones representation of what normalization means in the literal sense of the word (i.e., establish formalized ties). Without a full commitment and the political resolve to create sustained ties, the relationship is more likely to fall to the wayside when an internal or external hardship arises.
Sudan’s Political Instability
Further challenges might come from Sudan’s local politics. Sudan is undergoing a tumultuous political transition. Last year, Sudan overthrew its longtime autocratic ruler, Omar Hassan al-Bashir. It is now ruled by a brittle arrangement between the military and civilians.[xv] But by 2022, the plan is for Sudan to hold elections to transition power from military-influenced to a fully civilian-run democracy.[xvi] In contrast to the military generals, most of the civilians in Sudan’s transitional government do not support normalization with Israel, calling it “pure blackmail.”[xvii]
Normalization is also unpopular among the general population. There is already evidence of Sudanese civilians burning the Israeli flag on the streets to protest normalization.[xviii] While it is not surprising that an Arab nation’s civilian population would protest Israeli normalization (and this happened in the UAE and Bahrain as well), there is concern that normalization risks Sudan’s already fragile political transition.[xix] Thus, the unpopularity of normalization by both the population and the incoming transition team risks Sudan’s political stability.
As such, Sudan might be unable to keep up its end of the bargain and continue on a normalization path with Israel. When Israel made peace with Egypt and Jordan in 1979 and 1994, political stability ensured stable normalization. Egypt and Jordan were both ruled by autocrats that were strategically interested in peace with Israel. In particular, Jordan’s King Hussein had a strong relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, with the leaders having secretly worked with each other for decades before their countries’ agreement.[xx]
Lebanon was in a similar situation to Sudan in 1983. The agreement called for Israeli withdrawal of Lebanese territory, a territory that would thus be patrolled by the Lebanese army.[xxi] The peace agreement collapsed along with the Lebanese Army in 1984 when the country degenerated into civil war. Some experts have drawn parallels to the beginnings of the Israel-Sudan deal with the ill-fated Israel-Lebanon agreement.[xxii] A premature normalization during a fragile political transition at the very least places further strain on the agreement, and at worst, might accelerate political collapse, both dangerous to long-term normalization.
What will happen to the Israel-Sudan peace agreement, an agreement already under fire? It is not all doom and gloom. Should Congress codify Sudan’s immunity from future terrorism lawsuits, Sudan is likely to tacitly recognize Israel’s efforts on its behalf. Sudan also has continued the trend toward Arab normalization by publicly stating it wants peace, despite the coercive situation. On December 10, the White House announced that Morocco would become the fourth country this year to normalize ties.[xxiii] Other countries might follow, which is in Israel’s interest, even if Sudanese cooperation deteriorates.
Transactional deals enacted in a coercive situation do not easily breed prosperity. If Lebanon is any guide, transactional deals where one party is politically unstable are even more difficult to sustain. As such, it would be in the US interest to ensure a successful political transition to a unified democratic government in Sudan.[xxiv]
Beyond political instability, the absence of Sudan’s political resolve to maintain the deal is detrimental. While Sudan can illustrate its resolve by establishing embassies, moving too quickly might stir popular unrest. Withholding normalization steps until the political transition is over may be prudent. Thus, signaling political resolve without angering an already-resentful population will be Sudan’s balancing act.
[i] Lara Jakes, “Officials Say Peace Accord Between Sudan and Israel Is Already at Risk of Unraveling,” New York Times, Dec. 1, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/01/us/politics/sudan-israel-trump-peace-accord.html.
[iii] “Joint Statement of the United States, the Republic of Sudan, and the State of Israel,” The White House, Oct. 23, 2020, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/joint-statement-united-states-republic-sudan-state-israel/.
[iv] Connor Finnegan, “In bid to save Sudan deal, State Dept. offers to compensate terror attack victims,” ABC News, Dec. 8, 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/bid-save-sudan-deal-state-dept-offers-compensate/story?id=74588871.
[v] Barak Ravid, “Scoop: Israel lobbies senators to pass Sudan immunity bill,” Axios, Dec. 7, 2020, https://www.axios.com/israel-sudan-immunity-bill-lobbying-07ceb797-5c85-4099-9667-a69232d5ace6.html.
[vii] David Ottaway, “A Bankrupt Sudan Faces More Trouble at Home over Peace with Israel,” Wilson Center, Oct. 28, 2020, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/bankrupt-sudan-faces-more-trouble-home-over-peace-israel.
[ix] Lara Jakes, “Already at Risk of Unraveling.”
[xi] David Halbfinger and Ronen Bergman, “Israel Sees Warming Ties With Sudan as Symbolic Progress in Hostile Region,” New York Times, Dec. 1, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/24/us/israel-sudan.html.
[xii] “READ: Full Text of the Abraham Accords and Agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates/Bahrain,” CNN, Sept. 15, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/15/politics/israel-uae-abraham-accords-documents/index.html.
[xiii] “Joint Statement of the U.S, Sudan, and Israel.”
[xiv] Ehud Yaari, “The Sudan Agreement: Implications of Another Arab-Israel Milestone,” The Washington Institute, Oct. 26, 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-sudan-agreement-implications-of-another-arab-israel-milestone.
[xv] Max Bearak and Naba Mohieddin, “U.S. push for Sudan to recognize Israel falters – and puts Khartoum in a tight spot,” Washington Post, Sept. 30, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/us-sudan-israel-talks/2020/09/30/11d45572-01dc-11eb-b92e-029676f9ebec_story.html?utm_source=Jewish+Insider+Contacts&utm_campaign=8d28e72935-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_06_24_06_53_COPY_02&utm_medium=email.
[xvi] David Ottaway, “A Bankrupt Sudan.”
[xvii] “Sudan to pull out of Israel deal if U.S. fails to pass terror delisting: Report,” Middle East Eye, Dec. 1, 2020, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/sudan-israel-normalisation-congress-terror-delisting.
[xviii] Tobias Siegal, “Sudanese protestors burn Israeli flag, reject normalization with Israel,” The Jerusalem Post, Oct. 24, 2020, https://www.jpost.com/international/sudanese-protesters-burn-israeli-flag-reject-normalization-with-israel-646765.
[xix] Payton Knopf and Jeffrey Feltman, “Normalizing Sudan-Israel Relations Now is a Dangerous Game,” United States Institute of Peace, Sept. 24, 2020, https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/09/normalizing-sudan-israel-relations-now-dangerous-game.
[xx] Bruce Riedel, “25 years on, remembering the path to peace for Jordan and Israel,” Brookings, Oct. 23, 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/10/23/25-years-on-remembering-the-path-to-peace-for-jordan-and-israel/.
[xxi] David Shipler, “Israel and Lebanon Sign Agreement at 2 Ceremonies,” New York Times, May 18, 1983, https://www.nytimes.com/1983/05/18/world/israel-and-lebanon-sign-agreement-at-2-ceremonies.html.
[xxii] Payton Knopf and Jeffrey Feltman, “Normalizing Sudan-Israel Relations.”
[xxiii] Vivian Salama, “Trump announces Israel and Morocco to normalize relations,” CNN, Dec. 10, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/12/10/politics/trump-israel-morocco/index.html.
[xxiv] Payton Knopf and Jeffrey Feltman, “Normalizing Sudan-Israel Relations.”