U.S. President Donald Trump announced Friday that Sudan and Israel had agreed to normalize relations, and he touted it as his foreign policy achievement in the Middle East ahead of the November 3 U.S. presidential election.
“The State of Israel and the Republic of Sudan have agreed to make peace,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “This will be the third country where we're doing this, and we have many, many more coming.”
Sudan is the third Arab country in recent months to establish ties with Israel, after Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates signed the Abraham Accords in September.
The White House released a statement saying that “in the coming weeks, the two countries will begin negotiations on cooperation agreements in agriculture, economy, trade, aviation, migration issues, and other areas of mutual benefit.”
During the announcement, Trump was joined on the phone by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Sudanese Chairman of the Sovereignty Council Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
Netanyahu hailed the announcement, calling it “another dramatic breakthrough for peace.”
While Trump insisted that the Palestinians would eventually join in recognizing Israel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ office released a statement condemning “normalization of ties with the state of the Israeli occupation, which occupies the land of Palestine.”
Sudan and Palestinian cause
Sudan was a longtime ally of the Palestinian cause under President Omar al-Bashir, who was toppled in 2019 after 30 years in power.
Currently facing an economic crisis, the transitional government of Sudan under Abdalla Hamdok has welcomed the trade and investment incentives that come as part of the normalization deal with Israel. A joint statement by the three countries included a promise by the U.S. to secure international debt relief for Khartoum.
Sudan is negotiating from an inherent position of weakness against two of the strongest countries in the region and in the world, said Cameron Hudson, senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
“Many people will look at the decision by Sudan as one that they were forced into,” Hudson said. “People in the country are calling it bullying, others are calling it blackmail. It certainly doesn't feel like it was arrived at through an agreement of equals.”
But Hudson said the deal also reflected the transitional government’s efforts to renew its relationship with the rest of the world and create a more balanced foreign policy.
State sponsor of terrorism
On Monday, Trump announced via Twitter his intention to remove Sudan from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
On Friday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany released a statement saying the president had informed Congress of his intent.
“This follows on Sudan’s recent agreement to resolve certain claims of United States victims of terror and their families. Yesterday, in fulfillment of that agreement, the transitional government of Sudan transferred $335 million into an escrow account for these victims and their families,” the statement said.
Sudan has been listed as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1993, alongside Iran, North Korea and Syria, which means it has been subject to restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, including a ban on defense exports and sales. The delisting of Sudan from the state sponsors of terrorism was a requirement by Khartoum before talks of normalization with Israel could proceed.
“There wasn't discussion of Israel until the president had already notified Congress that Sudan was being removed from the terrorism list,” Hudson said, adding that Khartoum wanted the removal to be “irreversible” before any deal was announced.
Responding to a VOA question, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was present for the Oval Office announcement Friday, said the delisting and the normalization deal “both had one thing in common: They made sense for the Sudanese people.”
“These two leaders from Sudan did all the right things. We now have a civilian-led government inside of Sudan,” Pompeo said, noting that Washington intended to support the transitional government.
Changing dynamic toward Iran
Trump said that other nations, including Saudi Arabia, would eventually establish relations with Israel, perhaps even including Iran.
“I think, ultimately, Iran maybe will become a member of this whole thing, if you want to really know the truth,” Trump said. “And ultimately, they'll all be one unified family. It'll be an amazing thing, probably has never happened in the Middle East.”
Iran’s rapprochement with Israel is unlikely to happen anytime soon, said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute.
“I don't know where the president is getting that from, but I have seen zero indication that the Iranians are interested in joining this trend,” Vatanka said. “The opposite is true: They're suggesting in all their statements and reactions so far that what is happening between Israel and UAE, Bahrain and now Sudan is not going to be sustainable.”
Normalization between Israel and the three Arab states reflects a changing dynamic in the Middle East in which traditional Arab support for the Palestinians’ fight toward statehood has largely been surpassed by regional concerns about Iran.
Vatanka said that regional thinking about hostility against Israel was also changing. “There is no military solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Vatanka said. “It has been tried since the late ’40s for so many rounds, and each time it's failed.”
The Iranians need to ask themselves if they are the ones who are stuck in the past, Vatanka added.
Foreign policy win
With less than two weeks until the U.S. election, the administration is touting the deal as another foreign policy win. In a statement, the White House said, “As more countries normalize relations with Israel, the region will become more stable, secure and prosperous.”
U.S. support for Israel is particularly appealing to evangelical Christians, a key demographic among Trump supporters.
During his conference call with the leaders Friday, Trump took a jab at his opponent, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
“Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal, Bibi? Sleepy Joe ... somehow I don’t think so,” Trump asked Netanyahu, using the Israeli leader's nickname. Netanyahu responded, “Uh ... one thing I can tell you is we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America.”
Israel relies on bipartisan support from Washington. Biden has stated that he supports more countries recognizing Israel, but he also has said he is committed to a two-state solution, achieving Palestinian statehood as a broader part of peace in the Middle East.
VOA's Salem Solomon contributed to this report.