“We’ll have a big, beautiful party at the end,” Donald Trump promised today in announcing two moves in the Middle East. Trump ordered the removal of Sudan from the State Department list of terror sponsors after the new government adopted US requirements, and ponied up over $300 million in a fund for terror victims. In return for that consideration, Sudan agreed to work with Israel on normalized ties as part of the Abraham Accord process, although it’s not immediately clear just how far those negotiations have already gone:
President Donald Trump has formally notified Congress that his administration will remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism Friday, nearly 30 years after the African country was first listed.
In a historic joint call afterwards, he also announced a “very special deal” between Israel and Sudan — marking the third Arab country to move toward normalizing relations with the Jewish state in an election-season push by his administration. It’s unclear if Sudan, which had pushed back on the White House efforts, is formally recognizing Israel or ending hostilities against it.
Either way, Friday’s events mark a historic new chapter, 18 months after the Sudanese people overthrew their strongman leader in mass protests. But several critical hurdles remain, including for U.S. victims of terror attacks with legal claims against Sudan.
In an agreement reached between the State Department and Sudan’s transitional government, the country agreed to pay $335 million to the victims of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, victims of the USS Cole attack, and the family of murdered USAID employee John Granville.
What about the “big, beautiful party”? Trump promised that several more Arab countries would soon join the list that has normalized relations with Israel. Trump explicitly named Saudi Arabia amongst those countries, which is a bit more explicit than the Saudis have been thus far. They have certainly sent plenty of signals in that direction, which is likely why Sudan felt comfortable cutting this deal even though they’re still dealing with unrest. The Saudis have held out in order to provide the Palestinians some leverage, but have also made it abundantly clear that the window is closing — fast — for a negotiated settlement.
How far along is the normalization deal? Axios puts the arc more toward the beginning of talks than toward the end. But Barak Ravid also explains why Sudan’s recognition is a very big deal, and very bad news for Hamas in particular:
Unlike with Israel’s recent deals with the UAE and Bahrain, there was a state of belligerency between Israel and Sudan for years. …
The backdrop: Sudan hosted a Hamas headquarters in Khartoum for years and maintained a military and political alliance with Israel’s enemies Iran and Hezbollah. The Iranians used Sudan as a base for arms smuggling to the Gaza Strip, and established a massive factory for long-range rockets there.
Between 2008 and 2014, a series of airstrikes took place against Gaza-bound weapons convoys in Sudan, an Iranian weapons ship docked in Port Sudan and the Iranian missile factory in Khartoum. The Sudanese government blamed Israel, which never took responsibility for the strikes.
Since 2014, Sudan’s relations with Iran cooled dramatically as it started getting closer to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It also engaged in quiet talks with Israel, which led Israel to lobby the U.S. and European countries to provide Sudan with economic aid.
There’s also this historical context:
The Khartoum Summit, following the 6-Day War, was hosted by Sudan & it’s where the Arab League passed the resolution known as "The Three No's" — ‘NO peace with Israel, NO recognition of Israel, NO negotiations with Israel.’ Fast forward to today’s news👇 https://t.co/0gfCo1MPFE
— Dan Senor (@dansenor) October 23, 2020
This, then, is an actual peace deal, or will be when it gets executed. Israeli prime minister called these developments “a glorious day for peace,” and explained at length how normalization has allowed Israelis to travel much more freely over the past few months. Still, Netanyahu was a bit mindful of diplomatic necessities in his exuberance, dodging a rather undiplomatic attempt by Trump to get Netanyahu to help Trump’s re-election campaign:
Trump has Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on speaker phone to discuss a deal normalizing relations between Israel and Sudan. He asks: "Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal?"
Netanyahu: "We appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America" pic.twitter.com/OtCAL37m8e
— CBS News (@CBSNews) October 23, 2020
Joe Biden certainly wouldn’t have been able to make this deal if he recalibrated back toward Iran, as he has promised to do. For that matter, his plans to handicap American energy production would increase prices for Iran’s main export in oil, strengthening their hand in conducting proxy wars in the region to gain hegemonic control of the region. Trump has a really good argument to make himself in that regard. But asking Netanyahu to comment in that manner was inappropriate, and clearly Netanyahu knew he needed to extricate himself from Trump’s suggestion.
Otherwise, though, this is very good news for Trump, for the US, for the Middle East region, and for America’s allies in it. It’s very bad news for our opponents there, especially Iran and its satellites. It also reminds us that neither of the two moderators in the presidential debates ever bothered to ask about foreign policy in any detail outside of China or Russia. I wonder why.
Update: Credit where it’s due for CNN’s coverage, which gives credit … where it’s due:
CNN’s Oren Liebermann: the Israel and Sudan deal is a “significant…foreign policy accomplishment by the White House” pic.twitter.com/BSYpNn3UZa
— Steve Guest (@SteveGuest) October 23, 2020