The meeting Monday in Uganda between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of Sudan’s transitional Sovereignty Council, is just another chapter in the convoluted history of the two countries. It is a story of ups and downs, war, expedience, animosity, gun-running and people-smuggling, conspiracies, the long reach of Iran, clandestine bank transfers and - above all – a relationship wrapped in overlapping layers of secrecy.
The opening chapter in that history was written in the first half of the 1950’s. Sudan was negotiating its independence from the joint British and Egyptian government, known as the "condominium," which had ruled since 1899.
Sudan’s major opposition, the Umma party, feared that Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser, keep to concretize his ideology of pan-Arabism ideology, and his ambitions for leadership of Africa and the Arab world, would try to bloc Sudan’s independence, in coordination with those Sudanese nationalists who favored unification with Egypt.
Umma’s representatives, led by Sadiq al-Mahdi - who, 30 years later would become Sudan’s prime minister - met secretly in London with Israeli diplomats, among them Mordechai Gazit, then the first secretary of the London embassy. The Sudanese emissaries sought the diplomatic and, if possible, economic assistance of Israel, a sworn enemy of Egypt.
In January 1956, Sudan gained its independence and was recognized by both the UK and Egypt. The task of maintaining the clandestine encounters with Israel, which continued for a few years, was transferred from Israel’s Foreign Ministry to the Mossad.
From the beginning, Sudanese-born Nissim Gaon, an Israeli-Swiss international businessman, played an important role in facilitating relations between Israel and Sudan, with an emphasis on economic ties. Over the years Israel benefited from Gaon’s investments and experience in the tourism and hotel industries.
The honeymoon in the relations between the two countries was cut short at the end of the 1950’s. A military coup d’état – one of several to come – and Nasser’s beguiling spell turned Sudan into Israel’s adversary. Sudan even sent a small military contingent to assist Egypt in the Six Day War of June 1967, and for the next decade there were no bilateral encounters, not even clandestine ones.
With this reality in mind, Israel replayed the old dictum of my enemy’s enemy is my friend, and set to work to build secret ties with forces in opposition to the Sudanese government. Mossad operatives, led by David Ben Uziel, better known as "Tarzan," infiltrated Sudan in 1969. Their mission was to help the South Sudanese tribes fighting against the central government in Khartoum.
Using air strips and bases in Uganda and Kenya, Israeli air force pilots dropped ammunition and weapons to assist the rebel forces of General Joseph Lago, who also traveled to Israel and met with Prime Minister Golda Meir. On the ground, "Tarzan" and his team, together with Lago’s troops, walked hundreds of kilometers in the bush, bombing bridges on the Nile and ambushing Sudanese soldiers.
The civil war ended in the mid 1970’s - but it wasn’t the end of Israel’s involvement. Instructed by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Mossad and Israeli navy personnel smuggled Ethiopian Jews to Promised Land, using that accumulated knowledge and experience of the terrain. Risking their lives and working alongside with Israelis of Ethiopian origins, they devised a highly daring plan, which eventually had two phases.
The first, between 1977 and 1980 and codenamed "Operation Brothers," used Israeli boats to rescue Ethiopian Jews picked up from Sudan’s Red Sea coast. To enhance the operation, the Mossad registered a front company in Europeand rebuilt a defunct diving resort. With Mossad operatives masquerading as diving instructors, the resort served as a command and control center. In this way 17,500 Jews were brought to Israel - yet it was achieved at a slow pace, and it could not be scaled up.
So in 1981, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon met secretly in Kenya with Sudanese leader General Jaffar al-Numeiri. Sharon, with the help of Israeli businessman Yaacov Nimrodi, former Mossad operative Dave Kimchi, and Saudi billionaire Adnan Khashoggi (acting quasi-independently of the Saudi authorities), plotted to turn Sudan into a depot for weapons intended for use to overthrow Ayatollah Khomeini’s relatively young regime in Iran.
The scheme called for Israel to send weapons to Sudan, financed by Khashoggi (both Khashoggi and Nimrodi foresaw tidy commissions.) Numeiri would receive a generous payoff. The deposed Shah’s son would be installed as Iran’s new ruler. Another goal was to divert some of the weapons to foment a rebellion in Chad, a country that could boast uranium mines of strategic interest, that would result in an Israel-friendly government.
But Sharon and his plotters were conspiring behind the back of the Mossad. When Mossad chiefs Yitzhak Hofi and Nahum Admoni learnt about the plan, they first complained to Begin and then they killed it.
Three years later, in 1984, the Mossad proved its strength once again. It decided to adapt once again the modus operandi for the emigration of the Ethiopian Jews. Thanks to bribes given to both Sudanese leader General Jaafar al-Numeiri and Omar Abu Taib, his security agency head, they agreed to turn a blind eye. Those 30 million dollars - donated by the American Joint Distribution Committee, the largest global Jewish welfare organization - lubricated the establishment of a new stage in smuggling out Ethiopia’s Jews.
The Ethiopian Jews were taken at night to Khartoum airport, and flown by "Trans European Airways" to Israel via Brussels. The company was owned by George Gutelman, a Belgium Jew who was more than happy to help the Mossad. Ephraim Halevy, later Mossad head, was in charge: It was called "Operation Moses." Ironically the main business of Gutelman’s airline - a charter company offering low-cost flights -was to ferry Muslim pilgrims to Mecca.
In executing Operation Moses, the Mossad was assisted by the CIA. This way an additional 30,000 Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel. But the airlift played a part of the downfall of the Numeiri regime, which was accused of collaborating with Israel. For a short time, Numeiri was replaced by Israel’s old friend, Sadiq al-Mahdi.
Soon, another military coup d’état took place in Khartoum and brought General Omar al-Bashir to power in 1989. Deeply influenced by a charismatic Muslim cleric called Hassan Tourabi, the duo controlled Sudan and turned it into a military theocracy. Osama bin Laden found sanctuary in Sudan from 1990 to 1996. And Sudan formed strong ties with Iran.
The result was that Sudan allowed its territory to be used as a transit point and storage facility for weapons smuggled by Iran’s Qods Force to Hamas in Gaza.
Israel couldn’t watch from the sidelines. From 2009 onward the Mossad - providing information - and Israel’s air force retaliated with a series of air strikes against boats and trucks carrying Iranian weapons and on arms depots on Sudanese soil.
In the last decade, the Sudan-Israel rollercoaster has turned and twisted on. General Bashir was declared a war criminal by the International Criminal Court for his part in perpetrating genocide in the Darfur region and in south Sudan. Sudanese refuges escaping the atrocities hoped to find shelter in Israel; treated as asylum-seekers in only the most formalistic manner, almost none were recognized as refugees, and now Netanyahu and his rightwing cabinet hope the conditions are right to deport them.
South Sudan, which suffered so much, declared its independence, and promptly began to purchase weapons from Israel - and in another historical irony, it, too, embarked on a civil war and perpetrated its own atrocities.
And General al-Bashir’s attraction to Iran waned, and with it, sprung the seeds of a renewed relationship with Israel. Bashir betrayed Iran, and befriended Saudi Arabia, solidifying his reorientation by sending Sudanese troops to fight in the civil war in Yemen - which partly functions as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia - in return for Saudi money and oil.
Encouraged by the last five years of Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning openness towards the Jewish state, Bashir started to flirt with Israel. He had deeply expedient reasons: he hoped that Netanyahu and the Mossad would be able to leverage the political clout of AIPAC and U.S. Jewish organizations to cleanse him of his crimes, to rehabilitate his reputation, in return for forming diplomatic relations with Israel.
According to foreign reports, in the twilight years of al-Bashir’s rule, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen met with his Sudanese counterpart General Salah Goshfor initial discussions on some form of trade and diplomatic relations between the two countries.
But Sudan’s domestic unrest and a long-pent up wave of opposition to his rule stood in his way. By then, the Mossad knew he was a dead horse, and his days in power numbered. He was finally deposed in April, 2019.
Now, with al-Bashir gone, the conditions could be ripe for a renaissance of relations between Jerusalem and Khartoum. With a tail wind from U.S. President Donald Trump and various Gulf states, Netanyahu’s government has quietly but eagerly renewed its efforts to turn Sudan into another regional Sunni Arab state friendly to Israel. For the time being, Israel’s immediate request is small, and mundane: to allow Israeli planes to over fly over Sudan’s airspace.
It won’t be an easy ride: Sudan’s political opposition challenged al- Burhan’s stance the moment news of his meeting leaked out; they accused him of cooperating with the "enemy," while the country’s civilian leadership claimed that they had not been notified about the meeting in advance at all. Al-Burhan deflected the criticism with the all-purpose reasoning that he met with Netanyahu for the benefit and welfare of the Sudanese people - emphasizing that the détente does not diminish his support for the Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s immediate political concern was to grab headlines to enhance his pre-election prestige. Indeed, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, a leader of the anti-Netanyahu opposition, argued that Israel’s national interests would have been better served by keeping the meeting secret and not publicizing it for short-term domestic political gains.
Clearly the bigger prize would be to open formal trade and diplomatic ties. It is certainly still a defense and security win that the leader of a state as overtly hostile as Sudan was, only a few years ago, has divested from Iran and Hamas, and is interested, however cautiously,in accommodation with Israel.
Netanyahu likes to say it’s another clear sign of how the Middle East’s geopolitics are changing. The jagged and inconsistent history of relations between Israel and Sudan suggests this particular change might not be so smooth, or sustained.
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