Late last week, both Israeli and Sudanese media outlets reported the visit of a high-level security delegation from Sudan to the Jewish state. This follows the January visit of Israeli officials, including members of the Mossad, to the Sudanese capital. Once one of Israel’s prime antagonists in the region, Sudan and Israel normalized relations in October of 2020. Contrary to the glamorous, warm, and public embrace seen between Israel and other members of the Abraham Accords axis, particularly the UAE and Bahrain, formal relations with Sudan have progressed at a much slower pace, undercut by civil unrest, lack of popular support, a military coup d’état, and the seemingly endless challenges faced by a democracy-in-transition. As we continue into the new year, there are many factors that could shape the direction of Israeli-Sudanese ties. Exemplified by the most recent exchange in security delegations, Israel’s relationship with Sudan is strategically important and will continue to play a role in shaping Israel’s foreign policy in the wider Middle East. 

After three decades of authoritarian rule, former President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir was removed from power in April of 2019. Following this, rumors began to circulate of behind-the-scenes discussions between Israel and Sudan, including a meeting in Uganda between then-Prime Minister Netanyahu and the former chairman of Sudan’s sovereignty council, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. As more nations began to normalize their relations with the Jewish state, Sudan’s covert ties with Israel became apparent, leading Sudan to become the third Arab country in a matter of months to begin the process of normalizing ties with Israel. For Israel, the strategic nature of normalizing relations with Sudan was straightforward. In addition to the rhetorical gravitas that a 180º reversal in relations with a former enemy state could provide, the security benefits that relations with Sudan entail are significant. Sudan has a very long coastline along the Red Sea, crucial for Israeli trade as well as defense against Iranian-backed naval threats in the region. Additionally, Sudan often serves as a route for both human and weapons traffic into Israel and Gaza. With Sudan in the mix, Israel has created a diplomatic corridor along the entire length of the African continent. 

For Sudan, too, normalization with Israel carries tangible benefits. Isolated from the international community for years, a key element of this deal was the removal of Sudan from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror. This decision opened up Sudan to more funding from the international community and restored relations with the U.S. Moreover, normalization would grant Sudan access to Israeli technology and financial support, particularly in the agricultural sector, as well as Israeli security support as the country continued its democratic transition. 

Though hailed as a success by many, normalization between the two countries also faced significant backlash. Many around the world saw this decision as a rushed attempt by both Israel and the Trump administration to add another “trophy” to the Abraham Accords process before crucial elections in both countries. Many saw the deal coordinated between the U.S., Israel, and Sudan as a prime example of quid-pro-quo in foreign policy. Certain experts also questioned the morality of this relationship, given the close association of some of Sudan’s top leaders with the Janjaweed militias that played a role in the genocide in Darfur. Within Sudan, popular protest against the decision was widespread and steadfast. In a country where much of the population is deeply supportive of the Palestinian cause and holds animosity towards Israel, normalization was seen as a deep betryal. Public outrage to these events led many to wonder if this new relationship had the potential to further destabilize Sudan as it proceeded with its fragile democratic transition. 

Nevertheless, the process of normalization between Israel and Sudan continued, albeit at a much slower and less public rate than that of the other three Abraham Accords countries, and without the establishment of formal political ties. Security, agricultural, and technological cooperation between the two nations has ensued, and several meetings have taken place between intelligence officials in both countries. However, other than a few small meetings between officials, such as the meeting between Sudanese Justice Minister Nasredeen Abdulbari and Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll in Dubai last October, political relations between the two nations have remained relatively stagnant. Particularly in contrast to the warm and public embrace seen between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, many speculated whether Israeli-Sudanese relations would amount to anything, or if this was the first example of a failure in the Abraham Accords process. 

One of the biggest challenges to the normalization process between Israel and Sudan occurred last October, when the Sudanese military overthrew the civilian government led by Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok in yet another coup d’état. This left the military in power again and Gen. Fatah al-Burhan in the driver’s seat. Though the military had been the primary driver of relations with Israel, often dragging the civilian government along with it, the future of relations with Israel remained up in the air, particularly given the closeness of some newly appointed officials to the former al-Bashir regime, as well as the political and popular unrest caused by the coups. To date, massive protests are still taking place across the country, resulting in a brutal crackdown by the security forces and the death of at least 80 civilians with many more injured. Sudan’s democratic transition is in jeopardy, leaving Israel to question if and how relations with the African nation should progress. 

If last week’s developments are an indication, it seems that the relationship between Israel and Sudan is still moving forward. In an interview on Sudanese TV last week, Gen. Burhan acknowledged the recent exchange of security delegations, and though he assured the public that no political delegations have occured, he applauded the intelligence sharing between the two nations that led to the capture of suspected Sudanese-declared terrorists. This public acknowledgement of relations with Israel, albeit with the reassurance against significant political cooperation, is still significant. 

Moving forward, Israel must proceed with caution as relations continue to develop. Paths to further cementing this relationship and changing popular opinion towards Israel do exist, particularly in the agricultural sector, where the implementation of Israeli agricultural and environmental technology could truly change the lives of millions in Sudan. Further security coordination will also be crucial for Israel, particularly as it continues to be a player in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf security arenas. Yet Sudan stands at a difficult crossroads, facing immense domestic instability and pushback from other members of the international community against the overthrow of civilian rule. 

There are several strategies Israel can use to continue developing its relationship with Sudan while simultaneously ensuring that it doesn’t further destabilize the Sudanese regime or jeopardize its strategic interests in the region. First, Israel should focus on improving its agricultural and environmental ties with Sudan. By investing time, money, and energy into new agricultural technologies, Israel could make tangible improvements in the everyday living conditions and livelihoods of the Sudanese people. This would allow Israel to strengthen its relationship with the local population, helping to change popular opinion towards the Jewish state while simultaneously doing its part to stabilize Sudan at a grassroots level. 

To further improve its standing amongst the Sudanese populace, Israel should also invest heavily in people-to-people ties, as it has in Bahrain, the UAE, and Morocco, instead of just public ties with the Sudanese government. Sudan and Israel have an intersecting history––with commonalities in ancient andbiblical history, the historic Jewish communities found in Khartoum, the important Muslim holy sites found in Jerusalem, or even the large population of Sudanese refugees who reside permanently in the Jewish state, there are enough mutual areas of interest to bring the citizens of each country together. Stressing commonalities and shared history will be a major factor in impacting the perception of Israel in Sudan, thus benefiting its ability to formalize the normalization between both countries.

Finally, Israel should focus much of its energy in Sudan along the Red Sea coastline. There are countless trade, security, environmental, and intelligence opportunities along this extremely vital waterway. More than 10% of global trade passes through the Red Sea each year, and Israel, as a nation that has one of its major ports along the sea, is an active player in this market. Investing in Sudan’s Red Sea coast, particularly in Port Sudan, will allow it to develop a new market in the region and increase exports worldwide. From an intelligence perspective, having Israeli resources in Sudan would allow Israel to better monitor its own cargo, keep a better eye on Iranian activity in the region, crack down on the illicit smuggling industry, and better monitor other flashpoints in the region, particularly the war in Yemen. Meanwhile, investment along the Red Sea coastline would continue to allow Israel to make positive strides with local populations, particularly those in rural, often overlooked areas. The development of these regions would have benefits for Israel and Sudan alike.

Given that Sudan is still going through an incredibly rocky transition and is not viewed highly in the eyes of many of the world’s powers, it’s best for Israel to stay away from working too deeply with the government in a visible way. By following the aforementioned recommendations, Israel would be able to indirectly support the government, improve its image amongst the general public, invest in both its own security interests as well as those of Sudan, and make a positive impact on the ground, potentially aiding to stabilize hot points for conflict and insecurity in the region. How Israel manages to walk this razor-thin line as this year progresses will be a telling sign for the success of its foreign policy in the wider region, and should be closely watched by analysts and those invested in Israel’s process of normalization with Muslim-majority states.