Tuesday 9 March 2021

Tel Aviv and Khartoum exchange gifts

A slightly edited version of the piece below was published on Middle East Eye
In a telling exchange of gifts in Khartoum on 25 January Israel’s minister of intelligence, Eli Cohen, brought his host, Sudan’s minister of defence Yassin Ibrahim Yassin, citrus fruits and olive oil from Palestine and received in return an imitation M-16 rifle, produce of Sudan’s Military Industry Corp. The symbolism requires no grand interpretative effort: Tel Aviv delivered markers of its settler domination over Palestinian land and resources and Khartoum responded with a weapon to consolidate the reality of Israeli occupation.
The Israeli minister said he was captivated by the “warmth” of the reception in Khartoum, feelings that translated into a memorandum of understanding on security and intelligence cooperation “to work together to stop terrorism and exchange defence strategies and knowledge”. Moreover, the Israeli minister discussed with the Sudanese head of state, Abd al-Fattah al-Burhan, the possibility of Israel joining the Red Sea alliance, a new security and defence block launched by Saudi Arabia in January 2020 under the title of the ‘Council of the Arab and African Countries of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden”. The block includes Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Eritrea, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan and officially seeks to secure the Red Sea corridor from piracy, smuggling and regional threats, Saudi Arabia’s standard coding for Iranian interests. 
The Sudanese government had signed on 7 January 2021 to the “Abraham accords” in whispers, whilst maintaining the claim that a final decision on the matter would rest with a still non-existent transitional parliament. Sudan’s justice minister Nasr al-Din Abd al-Bari and the former US treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin autographed the deal in Khartoum; the immediate reward was a US commitment to provide Sudan with a bridge loan to clear 1 billion USD of Sudan’s arrears (a total of 1.3 billion USD) to the World Bank and eventually access around 1.5 billion USD in annual development assistance via an initiative for heavily indebted poor countries. 
The US had formally rescinded Sudan’s designation as a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’ on 14 December 2020 after the Sudanese government agreed to establish relations with Israel and to pay 335 million USD to victims of the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in an out of court settlement. The government of Sudan however remains liable for potentially billions of dollars in additional payments to the families of those killed in the 11 September 2001 attacks.
The transitional government in Khartoum, burdened with an economy in tailspin, was for all practical purposes strongarmed into acquiescing to Washington’s quid pro quo irrespective of mandate or domestic concerns. The mightiest country on earth with a government budget of 4,79 trillion USD for the fiscal year 2020 boxed one of the poorest, shackled with a total external debt (60 billion USD) of over 190% of its GDP in 2019, and an inflation rate currently at 140%, the third highest globally (superseded only by Venezuela and Zimbabwe) into political subservience.
However, there was no paucity of willing partners in Khartoum, hence the warmth of Cohen’s reception in the Sudanese capital. Sudan’s military establishment had openly declared its agenda with the surprise meeting between al-Burhan and Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 3 February 2020 in Entebbe. At the time, politicians of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) who comprise the civilian arm of the ruling coalition, including prime minister Abdalla Hamdok denied prior knowledge of the meeting. Significantly, a media campaign was unleashed to sing the merits of ‘normalisation’. Pundit after pundit including turbaned sheikhs appeared on television with ready made pro-Israeli fatwas and inked column after another in the written press to market the case of peace with Israel as it were. Already under former president Omer al-Bashir a clamour in the media had introduced the possibility of normalising relations with Israel as a route out of Sudan’s international isolation but with misgivings. At the time, Palestinian speakers such as Usama Al-Ashgarwere invited to argue the opposite. 
The arguments fielded by protagonists of “peace with Israel” can be summarised in three main points: one intrinsic and the other extrinsic to Sudanese affairs and between them a racial alibi to disqualify the Palestinian cause altogether. 
Realpolitik, it is maintained, obliges Sudan to pursue “normalisation” of relations with Israel in order to satisfy the demands of the US and to comply with the injunctions of powerful patrons in the region, primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This position is then presented as a long overdue awakening to Sudan’s strategic interests and an instance of ‘independent’ national decision-making. 
The tide had turned anyway, it is further argued, and the consensus of the 1967 Khartoum summit in the wake of the Six Days War, “no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel and no recognition of Israel”, is a relic of a bygone age. The frontline states, Egypt and Jordan, have long made their own separate peace deals with Israel; and the Palestinians themselves have signed settlements the Israeli power thus aborting their own cause. 
The first argument rests on the assumption of a uniform body politic subsumed under the marker of a nation, an assumption that is designed to overwrite the conflicting interests that define any society and translate into divergent and contradictory political biases and pursuits. Upon interrogation, what is claimed to be a strategic interest of the nation reveals pipeworks of brute authoritarianism. Normalisation of relations with Israel is sought after by Sudan’s military-security establishment and its new allies as the surest doorway to access the benefits of the mighty and their technology of oppression. 
Indeed, once Sudan’s realists had joined the Abraham Accords the US military began phasing in an agenda of cooperation and exchange. Deputy to the US Africa Command Commander for Civil-Military Engagement, Ambassador Andrew Young, and Director of Intelligence, Rear Adm. Heidi Berg, spent 25 to 27 January in Sudan to discuss “strategy”. On 24 February the USS Carson, an expeditionary fast transport ship of the US Military Sealift Command, arrived in Port Sudan in what was hailed as a “moment of fundamental change in the bilateral relationship between the United States and Sudan”. On 2 March, jubilant Sudanese navy officers welcomed the USS Winston Churchill, a destroyer of the US Sixth Fleet, in Port Sudan. 
Now, if examples in the region are anything to judge by the umbrella of the US military is not precisely the conducive environment for the democratic will of a people to transpire. 
The second argument conflates the Palestinian people, in the murderous grip of Zionist occupation, with the long expired political princes of the Oslo Accords and the club of cronies in government against whom the multitudes of the recent Arab revolts took aim. It is these circuits of power that Sudan’s realists aspire to plug into. The rationality of “they did it too” is particularly unsustainable when presented as an indicator of an independent Sudanese political will. The Palestinian cause in that regard is instrumentalised as a bone of contention in the the politics of vexation between Sudan’s now defeated Islamists and their adversaries. One common line of reasoning is that Sudan’s Islamists wish to maintain the policy of boycotting Israel while their patrons, Qatar and Turkey, both cultivate relations with Israel. From this premise, it is claimed, Sudan’s conversion to the axis of Israel, the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is evidence of Sudan’s emancipation from Arab hegemony over its political choices. In this imaginative twist of logic, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are but well-wishers paving the way for Sudanese emancipation. 
The complement to these two arguments is a loud Freudian slip. Protagonists of peace with Israel trade the view that the Palestinians are unworthy of solidarity since they perceive the Sudanese as their racial inferiors, wannabe Arabs of African stock. And anyway, Sudan’s Arabs are elopers when it comes to their claims of Arab identity and are actually better described as Arabised Africans or Arabophones in another rendition of the same. 
What goes unspoken in this identitarian twist is the actual experience of Sudanese asylum-seekers in Israel, some of whom were hunted down by racist mobs in Tel Aviv chanting the slogan “the people want the Sudanese deported”. A Likud Member of the Knesset (MK) stated candidly: “the Sudanese were a cancer in our body”. As talks between Khartoum, Washington and Tel Aviv were underway, Israeli media reported that the normalisation deal would involve plans to repatriate some six thousand Sudanese asylum seekers currently in Israel. Only one asylum application from a Sudanese has actually been granted by the Israeli authorities; 600 received refugee status as a result of an ad hoc ministerial decision without examination of their applications and another 800 were granted temporary residence for humanitarian reasons. The remainder occupy a bureaucratic limbo. 
Paradoxically, Benjamin Netanyahu would have none of the identity piety of Sudan’s reborn “Arabophones”. For the purposes of the Zionist entity, Sudan is an Arab country. Following a joint phone call on 23 October 2020 with former US president Trump, Sudan’s head of state al-Burhan and prime minister Hamdok, he declared: “Today we announce another dramatic breakthrough for peace. Another Arab state joining the circle of peace. This time, it’s normalization between Israel and Sudan.” The three ‘No’s’ of the 1967 Khartoum summit might seem irrelevant to Sudan’s pro-Israel camp but to Netanyahu at stake was a cudgel at last splintered apart. “(..) today Khartoum has said, ‘yes to peace with Israel, yes to recognition of Israel and yes to normalization with Israel,’” he triumphantly asserted. 
Strategic interests, the Oslo Accords and racial categories are understandable as alibis, the operative functions of which are to strike at the very idea of solidarity, caricature the very possibility of liberation and denigrate the emancipatory potential of a people under occupation. Sudan’s rulers are better served by simply recognising the forces dictating their political choices rather than conjuring up arguments that fly in the face of the revolutionary potential of the popular will that catapulted them to power. 
Creative Commons Licence
This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.