Three years after the Arab Gulf countries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates grabbed headlines for becoming the third and fourth Arab countries to normalise relations with Israel, the two North African countries that followed suit are not quite as far along in terms of relations.
In October and December 2020, Sudan and Morocco respectively announced that they had agreed to normalise with Israel.
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General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the leader of the civilian-military transitional Sovereign Council in Sudan, had already met secretly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February 2020.
Al-Burhan, buoyed by the United States signalling it was ready to consider removing Sudan from its list of State Sponsors of Terrorism in return, said he undertook this step with the “supreme interest” of the Sudanese people at heart.
But, while diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel blossomed into full cooperation in various sectors, Khartoum’s agreement with Israel remained nominal due to the outbreak of civil war between rival generals in April.
According to Kholood Khair, a Sudanese political analyst, the Abraham Accords was a way for Sudan’s transitional government to “try and mend bridges between itself and the Americans after the fall of [former dictator] Omar al-Bashir, and also with itself and the Emiratis who are very anti-Muslim Brotherhood,” she said.
Al-Bashir, who ruled Sudan for 30 years until he was overthrown by a military coup in 2019, had maintained a military-political Islamist coalition as the foundation of his National Congress Party.
Khair said the agreement did not have any “civilian dividends” as “the military was far more interested in some of the spyware, surveillance, etc that Israel had”.
“The Israelis didn’t trust the Sudanese enough to give them that equipment but all of the other things that could have been on the table – agricultural cooperation, technology, etc – were not,” she explained.
Rabat and Israel’s close collaboration
Morocco’s relations with Israel stand in stark contrast as the two have deepened their intelligence cooperation, arms and technology trade, and engaged in joint military drills.
Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa project director at the Crisis Group, said the relationship between Rabat and Israel has reached a level of cooperation higher than normalisation.
“Israel and Morocco do not simply enjoy a fully normal diplomatic relationship, but they have laid the foundations for a full-blown political, economic and, most importantly, military cooperation,” he told Al Jazeera.
“From Israeli investment to sales of advanced equipment and weapons to Rabat, the two countries are collaborating very closely.”
Last July, Israel also recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, reportedly a prerequisite for Rabat to open its embassy in Tel Aviv.
Fabiani said this recognition has green-lit the selling of Israeli advanced military equipment and weapons to Morocco.
“From Israel’s perspective, Morocco is now a close partner in North Africa, and Moroccan narratives that they face the same enemies – Rabat claims that the Polisario Front is backed by Iran – have helped cement this relationship,” he explained.
“Selling weapons and equipment is a way for Israel to get new ‘friends’ in the region and expand its influence, regardless of the impact it has on local tensions.”
Pro-Palestinian civil groups in Morocco, as well as other left-wing activists, have objected to the new rapport between the two countries, but many fear political reprisal if they speak out.
“The linkage between normalisation and Western Sahara has made it difficult for many Moroccans to openly oppose this development, as Western Sahara is a sacred national political cause in Morocco,” Fabiani said.
“Many other Moroccans have been quiet or not explicitly opposed to normalisation, while other constituencies [some Amazigh activists, for example] have publicly welcomed and supported this step, as they see it as a way of putting a distance between Morocco and pan-Arabism and strengthening pluralism in the country through the recovery of Morocco’s Jewish identity.”
Three Noes to three Yeses?
In Sudan, civil society’s reaction to normalisation was ignored as it was not a priority for them, Sudan affairs analyst El-Waleed Mousa said.
“They had more pressing issues, such as drafting the constitution and disentangling military officers from the political and executive affairs,” he said, referring to the Sovereign Council body.
The signing of the accords was done in a “clandestine manner” and the Sudanese generals, Mousa said, “didn’t have the courage to rationalise their plan by communicating it with the public”.
Khartoum is long remembered by Israelis as the city where the Arab League in 1967 proclaimed its “Three Noes” resolution on Israel – no recognition, no peace and no negotiations.
Speaking at a meeting with al-Burhan in February this year, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen – as part of the only foreign delegation sent to Sudan post-coup – said he is building a “new reality” with Sudan, turning the three noes into three yeses.
“Yes to negotiations between Israel and Sudan, yes to recognition of Israel and yes to peace between the states and between the peoples,” Cohen said.
Analyst Khair said the usual actors against normalisation would be the Islamist supporters of al-Bashir. But it was under al-Bashir – not under al-Burhan – that normalisation was first brought up.
“It was in 2016 – when the Bashir regime turned away from Iran [to be] closer to Saudi Arabia and US allies – that the issue of normalisation had come up,” she said.
“The then-head of the Congress party, Ibrahim Ghandour, had been publicly saying that maybe normalisation with Israel would be a good way for the regime to go as they were trying to court different allies.”
“The way the generals had tried to sell it was to say that this is a way for us to come back into the global fold after so many years of being a pariah state,” she added.
While the nominal agreement signed under then-US President Donald Trump represents more of a security act rather than a warm peace, the future of Israeli-Sudanese relations is up in the air.
“The Abraham Accords with Sudan basically rested on military engagement,” Khair said. “Israel worked mostly with the generals who are now at war, and for whom a future political position is very unlikely if things go well in terms of the negotiations taking place.”
If the country had a civilian government, she went on to say, keeping the Abraham Accords might be seen as a net value, especially with presenting to the US and the UAE that the era of political Islam in Sudan is over.
And, while it may be premature to consider given the ongoing war, Khair said the nature of the accords will shift.
“There will need to be more areas of civilian-to-civilian cooperation in areas of agriculture, technology, potentially health as well,” she said.
“There will probably be a rejigging of how the accords move forward.”