JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel and Sudan have agreed to move toward forging normal relations for the first time, Israeli officials said on Monday after the leaders of the two former foes met in Uganda.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had two hours of talks with Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of Sudan’s sovereign council, in the city of Entebbe in central Uganda.
“It was agreed to start cooperation leading to normalization of the relationship between the two countries,” an Israeli statement said.
Sudan’s information minister and government spokesman, Faisal Salih, told Reuters he had no information about the visit and that the cabinet had not discussed it. Officials would wait for “clarifications” on Burhan’s return, Salih said in a later statement.
Burhan is the most senior figure in the first phase of a power-sharing arrangement between the military and civilian parties in Sudan that began last August, following the overthrow of long-time Islamist ruler Omar al-Bashir.
Civilian authorities are due to take the lead for the final 18 months of the 39-month transition.
Normalising relations with Sudan, where Arab states gathered in 1967 to issue what became known as the “Three No’s” – no recognition of Israel, no peace with Israel and no negotiations with Israel – would allow Netanyahu to burnish his diplomatic credentials a month before Israel’s March 2 election.
It could pave the way for the right-wing Israeli leader to pledge the deportation of Sudanese who make up around one fifth of illegal workers in Israel, a move backed by many of his supporters.
These migrants had previously argued that they could not be repatriated as they faced retribution for traveling to Israel, an enemy of Sudan.
“Netanyahu believes that Sudan is moving in a new and positive direction,” the Israeli statement said.
Sudan’s leader, it added, “is interested in helping his country go through a modernization process by removing it from isolation and placing it on the world map”.
Burhan’s visit and any normalization of ties with Israel would likely be controversial with many in Sudan and elsewhere in the Arab world, especially at a time when Netanyahu has been promoting a new U.S. peace plan that Palestinians have flatly rejected.
Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat called Burhan’s meeting with Netanyahu “a stab in the back of the Palestinian people and a flagrant walkout on the Arab peace initiative”, according to a statement published by the official WAFA news agency.
Israel previously considered Sudan a security threat because it suspected Iran used Sudan as a conduit for overland smuggling of munitions to the Gaza Strip. In 2009, regional sources said, Israeli aircraft bombed an arms convoy in Sudan.
But since Bashir was ousted last April, Khartoum has distanced itself from Iran and no longer poses such a threat, Israeli officials say.
On Sunday, the United States invited Burhan to visit Washington, Sudan’s sovereign council said.
Sudan is pushing to be removed from a U.S. list of countries considered state sponsors of terrorism. The listing has impeded badly needed international financial assistance and commercial activity in Sudan.
Earlier on Monday, Netanyahu held talks with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who said Uganda was studying the possibility of opening an embassy in Jerusalem.
(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller, Dan Williams and Khalid Abdelaziz; Editing by Pravin Char and Grant McCool)