Israel Should Invest in Its New Ties to Sudan

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Israel is understandably making the most of its recent “normalization” agreements with Arab states. There’s much ado over new economic prospects for Israeli businesses, new holiday destinations for Israeli travelers and new security alliances for the Israeli defense and intelligence establishment.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has talked up invitations to visit Abu Dhabi from the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates and to Manama from the crown prince of Bahrain. When they happen, you can expect Netanyahu to make much more of those trips than he did of his recent surreptitious Saudi Arabian sojourn.

Amid all the excitement, it is easy to lose sight of the other Arab state with which Israel recently secured an accord: Sudan.

To be sure, the “peace” with Sudan was very different from the deals with the UAE and Bahrain. While Israel’s agreements with the two Gulf states are more like marriages of convenience, the arrangement with Sudan has every appearance of a shotgun wedding, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as the double-barreled officiant.

The Trump administration made the deal a precondition for removing Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The transitional government in Khartoum, desperate for investments and loans to shore up a sinking economy, could hardly refuse.

But if the accord with Sudan doesn’t summon the passion of the pacts with the UAE and Bahrain, it gives Israel an opportunity to forge a relationship with the Arab world deeper than one based on economic or strategic considerations. In fact, Netanyahu would do well to put Khartoum above Abu Dhabi and Manama on his list of Arab destinations.

Impoverished Sudan has little economic or strategic value to offer Israel: Access to its Red Sea ports would be useful, as would cooperation in counterterrorism operations. But Israel has much to offer Sudan: financial aid, investment, technology (especially in the areas of agriculture, healthcare and desalination) and other forms of economic support. It can lobby on Sudan’s behalf with multilateral lending institutions. As a democracy, Israel can also help with Sudan’s transition toward representative government.

The Sudanese may have hoped to get such assistance from the U.S., but the Trump administration seems disinclined to provide anything beyond the bare minimum. It recently included Sudan in the list of nations whose citizens must pay a hefty bond to visit the U.S.

Although the government in Khartoum can expect more consideration from a President Joe Biden — and a Secretary of State Antony Blinken — the new administration will have a full slate of foreign-policy crises, and Sudan will not be very high on the list.

But Sudan can’t wait. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, having launched a series of far-reaching political reforms, is under pressure to deliver economic dividends. Even before the coronavirus pandemic and recent devastating floods, the Sudanese economy was in serious trouble, shrinking 2.5% in 2019. Now, the country must cope with triple-digit inflation and a currency in freefall. The International Monetary Fund forecasts an 8% contraction in GDP this year.

Hamdok has been obliged to make unpopular decisions, such as lifting fuel subsidies. If he doesn’t show some progress on the economic front, he could face the wrath of the street demonstrators who brought down the dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir. That would swing the balance in the power-sharing government away from the civilians and toward the men in uniform.
Under such dire circumstances, Khartoum could use all the help it can get. Israeli assistance now would be a demonstration of goodwill toward the Sudanese — a first step in turning a shotgun wedding into a meaningful marriage.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

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