Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the leader of Sudan on Monday and said they began talks on normalization, a major diplomatic breakthrough with an Arab and African state two days after the Arab League rejected a U.S. Mideast initiative that heavily favors Israel.
Sudan is a longtime member of the Arab League and joined other members in rejecting President Donald Trump’s plan.
But Sudan is also desperate to lift sanctions linked to its listing by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terror — a key step toward ending its isolation and rebuilding its economy after the popular uprising that toppled Omar al-Bashir last year.
For Israel, the meeting marks a major step toward improving ties with both Arab and African countries, and further burnishes Netanyahu’s diplomatic credentials as he seeks re-election in March under a cloud of corruption charges.
In a sign of the sensitivities involved, the meeting with Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the head of Sudan’s transitional government, was kept secret, with Netanyahu only announcing it after the fact.
“We agreed to begin cooperation that will lead to normalization of relations between the two countries,” Netanyahu tweeted. “History!”
Netanyahu’s office said the meeting came at the invitation of Uganda. It said Netanyahu “believes that Sudan is moving in a new and positive direction, and the prime minister expressed his views to the U.S. Secretary of State” — an apparent reference to removal from the terror list.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo invited Burhan to visit the United States in a phone call on Sunday. The date of the visit has not yet been set.
A senior Sudanese military official said the meeting 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.
Under al-Bashir, Sudan was also believed to have served as a pipeline for Iran to supply weapons to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. Israel was believed to have been behind airstrikes in Sudan that destroyed a convoy in 2009 and a weapons factory in 2012.
The official, who was not authorized to brief media and so spoke on condition of anonymity, said Burhan agreed to meet Netanyahu because officials thought it would help “accelerate” the process of being removed from the terror list.
He said only a “small circle” of top officials in Sudan, as well as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, knew about the meeting.
Sudan hosted the Arab League summit after the 1967 war that became famous for establishing the “three no’s”: No to peace with Israel, no to recognition of Israel and no to negotiations with Israel.
That consensus broke down when Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, and has further eroded in recent years as Israel has improved ties with Gulf Arab nations that share its concerns about Iran.
Establishing diplomatic ties with Sudan would be seen in Israel as a major achievement. Only two Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, have made peace with Israel. The launch of the process could also give Netanyahu a boost ahead of next month’s elections.
He has portrayed himself as a world-class statesman, trumpeting his close ties to Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Over the past week he attended the unveiling of Trump’s Mideast proposal at the White House and convinced Putin to release an Israeli tourist from prison.
That may shift the focus away from Netanyahu’s indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust as he seeks to extend his rule — already the longest of any Israeli prime minister. He is fighting for his political survival after failing to cobble together a governing majority after unprecedented back-to-back elections last year