peace prospects

Could brewing civil war in Sudan unravel its relations with Israel?

Israel has offered to mediate between the warring sides out of a personal interest to save a potential peace treaty that was slated to be signed in Washington later this year, analysts told Jewish Insider

(Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

Smoke billows over buildings in Khartoum on May 1, 2023 as deadly clashes between rival generals' forces have entered their third week.

Amid the armed conflict between two rival military factions in Sudan, warnings are growing that an all-out civil war in the strategically located but turbulent African nation could not only spill over into neighboring countries but also impact the 2020 normalization agreement with Israel.

For Israel, which last week offered to mediate between the two generals now at war, there is growing concern that if a cease-fire is not soon reached, a broader war could also threaten the implementation and expansion of the celebrated Abraham Accords, which it signed in 2020 first with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and later spurred bilateral normalization treaties with Morocco and Sudan.

In February, Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen traveled to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, where he met with Sudanese Army Commander Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, and the two pledged to sign a more declarative peace pact later this year.

“The parties finalized the text of the agreement,” a statement released following the visit read. “A signing ceremony is expected to take place in Washington after the transfer of power in Sudan to a civilian government that will be established as part of the ongoing transition process in the country.”

With that transfer of power now on hold – clashes between the two military forces began on April 15 and the latest reports suggest that close to 600 people have already been killed – Israel has a vested interest in helping to mediate a solution not only to keep  alive the chances of real peace with the Muslim-majority country but also in order to prevent its arch-foe, Iran, from taking advantage of the unrest.

In a bold statement last week, Cohen’s office said that he had been working “through various channels to bring about a ceasefire,” including “an offer to host a negotiation summit in Israel with the aim of reaching agreements that will allow an end to the violence and war in the country.”

“Foreign Minister Eli Cohen is working to promote calm, which will enable the signing of a historic peace agreement between Israel and Sudan in the near future,” the statement emphasized. The offer was reportedly made in coordination with the United States and various parties in the Middle East involved in mediation attempts.

Yoni Ben Menachem, a senior analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said that while Israel’s offer to mediate was genuine, it was very unlikely that it would be utilized – just like former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s attempts to mediate last year between Russia and Ukraine.

“Israel has its own interests because it wants to sign this peace treaty with Sudan,” Ben Menachem, a former director general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, told Jewish Insider. “Israel has good connections with Burhan, but it can’t bridge the gaps between the two generals, and the situation in Sudan is deteriorating.”

“I don’t know if [Sudan] will cancel the Abraham Accords with Israel, but they might step back a little bit and this, of course, will have an impact on the other countries,” he added. “There has already been a shift in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia signed this agreement with Iran, and has actually joined the axis of Russia, Iran, China, leaving behind the United States and Israel.”

“This is having major effects all over the Middle East, and this puts the normalization process in danger,” Ben Menachem said.

Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that he did not believe the conflict in Sudan would have a wider impact on the other normalization agreements signed with Israel.

“Those will succeed or fail based on their own bilateral merits,” he observed. “The fate of this agreement [with Sudan], however, is entirely up in the air – if there is no functioning state, there is no functioning normalization agreement.”

Israel’s attempt to mediate, Schanzer said, does carry some weight “given that Israel does not back one side or the other in this conflict, the way a number of Arab states do.”

“Israel is the closest thing to a neutral party in the region, with the singular goal of maintaining diplomacy with whatever government ultimately emerges,” he noted.

But Ehud Yaari, a Lafer International Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who has written extensively on the crisis in Sudan, said the chances of Israel mediating in such a complex conflict was unlikely.

“There are so many mediators around trying to fix this conflict,” Yaari said, pointing out Sudan’s strategic location and its wealth of natural resources, including gold. “Apart from the U.N. mediation, you have the Americans, the Saudis, the East African Community (a coalition of East African nations) and the ex-president of Nigeria. There is no shortage of good mediators and most know Sudan much better than Eli Cohen ever will.”

On Wednesday, South Sudan said that the rival generals had agreed to a seven-day truce, starting Thursday.

While Yaari said he did not believe there would be a swift resolution to Sudan’s conflict, he did say that a real peace between Israel and Sudan was still possible.

“With tender loving care on Israel’s part and sober people handling the case, the prospect of a peace treaty is not over yet,” he said.

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