CAIRO – A surprise meeting between Sudan's leader and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stirred controversy in Sudan on Tuesday, with the government saying it wasn't notified ahead of time and critics lambasting the talks on social media.
Others s aid Monday' s meeting would improve Sudan's standing with the United States and help Khartoum shed its pariah image. For Israel, it was a major diplomatic breakthrough with a Muslim-majority African state, two days after the Arab League rejected President Donald Trump's Mideast plan.
The Uganda meeting between Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the head of Sudan’s transitional administration, and Netanyahu was kept secret but grabbed headlines late Monday when the Israeli leader announced the two had begun talks on normalizing relations between their countries.
Sudan is desperate to lift sanctions linked to its listing by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terror. That would be a key step toward ending its isolation and rebuilding the economy after the popular uprising last year that toppled autocrat Omar al-Bashir and installed the joint civilian-military sovereign council, headed by Burhan.
But Khartoum is also a longtime member of the Arab League and joined other members in rejecting Trump's plan at a meeting in Cairo on Saturday. The U.S. plan, heavily in favor of Israel, would grant the Palestinians limited self-rule in parts of the occupied West Bank, while allowing Israel to annex all its settlements there and keep nearly all of east Jerusalem.
H.A. Hellyer, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said Sudan runs the risk of damaging relationships with the wider Arab world, as well as with the opposition at home if it appears to be moving toward normalization with what he described as an extreme Israeli government.
“It's a cynical choice,” Hellyer said.
From Uganda, Netanyahu tweeted: “History!” while his office said the meeting with Burhan came at the invitation of Uganda. The statement said Netanyahu “believes that Sudan is moving in a new and positive direction" — an apparent reference to a possible removal from the U.S. terror list.
“We agreed to begin cooperation that will lead to normalization of relations between the two countries,” Netanyahu said.
Later on Tuesday, Burhan said he met with Netanyahu “as part of his responsibility ... to preserve and maintain Sudan’s national security, and to achieve the higher interests of the Sudanese people,” according to a statement released by the sovereign council.
He said Sudan still backs the Palestinians to have their independent state.
Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat called the Uganda meeting a “stab in the back of the Palestinian nation and a deviation from the Arab consensus.”
For Israel, there are several upsides beyond the optics of establishing relations with another Arab League country and burnishing its diplomatic credentials. Israel expects to be granted approval to fly over Sudanese airspace, which would greatly shorten flight times to South America, and also hopes it can repatriate the more than 8,000 Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the Burhan-Netanyahu meeting and “thanked the Sudanese leader for his leadership in normalizing ties with Israel,” according to the State Department. In a phone call a day earlier, Pompeo invited Burhan to visit the U.S. later in the year.
On social media, some Sudanese denounced the Sudan-Israel meeting, accusing Burhan of trying to get on the Trump administration's good side through Israel. Others applauded, arguing it was good for Sudan's future.
Prominent activist Amjed Farid said Burhan had no mandate from the people of Sudan to offer Netanyahu anything.
The pro-democracy movement, known as the Forces for the Declaration of Freedom and Change, released a statement following meetings with Burhan and the Cabinet.
The FDFC said it was not aware or consulted on the meeting between Burhan and Netanyahu beforehand, and that a change in Sudan’s position on Israel is the Sudanese people’s decision.
The movement said it stands by the Palestinians’ right to return and to have their independent state.
Former Sudanese Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, leader of the Umma political party, condemned the meeting, saying it “does not achieve Sudan’s national interest, nor does it achieve an Arab interest for us or a Palestinian interest.”
He accused Netanyahu of racism for calling Israel a Jewish state, and said his policies do not support a “just and comprehensive” peace in the Middle East.
“We do not know the details (of the meeting),” he said. “But, on principle, to deal with the current Israeli prime minister is (crossing) a red line,” he said.
The Sudanese Communist Party, which is part of the pro-democracy movement, also denounced the meeting, as “treason” against the Palestinians.
Information Minister Faisal Mohamed Saleh, the government's spokesman, said the Cabinet learned of the meeting through the media and was not consulted beforehand. “We will wait for clarifications after" Burhan returns home from Uganda, he said.
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. Only two Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, have made peace with Israel.
Associated Press writer Aron Heller in Jerusalem contributed.