The Biden administration has pledged to promote democracy overseas and to continue pursuing normalization between Arab states and Israel. Sudan, amidst a precarious but promising transition away from a brutal dictatorship, provides a pivotal early opportunity for progress in both arenas. Khartoum recently began a crucial, deserved, but multi-step transition off the U.S. list of state sponsors of international terrorism. As a result, Sudan’s transformation to both democracy and a full, lasting normalization with Israel depends on whether a highly distracted White House and Congress take specific, currently contested steps on Sudan in the coming months. Having come so far, it would be a pity for Khartoum to slide backward due to inattention from Washington.
President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy statements during the campaign heavily emphasized his commitment to “put strengthening democracy back on the global agenda.” If Sudan, with its extreme poverty and genocidal past, can continue its recent progress towards democracy, it will provide a beacon of hope for other countries in the African and Middle Eastern regions at whose intersection it is located.
On October 23, a few days after the United States said it would remove Sudan from the state sponsors of terrorism list, Sudan announced it would improve relations with Israel. Khartoum’s step was hailed as continuing momentum towards Arab-Israeli peace. However, Sudan’s move differed from the comprehensive, legally binding peace agreements signed previously by the UAE and Bahrain. The unstable interim Sudanese government agreed only to an unsigned and non-binding joint statement that mainly addressed economic and trade relations with Israel.
Promoting comprehensive Sudanese normalization with Israel would be fully consistent with recent Biden team statements on Middle East diplomacy. It could also advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Antony Blinken, a top Biden foreign policy adviser, recently pledged that a Biden administration would “continue to pursue and advocate for normalization” between Arab countries and Israel. Blinken also suggested that additional Arab countries normalizing their relationship with Israel would give the Israelis “greater confidence to move forward with the Palestinians,” and “send a message to the Palestinians that they have to actually engage, negotiate in a meaningful way.”
The October 23 joint statement of the United States, Sudan, and Israel stated that “the leaders agreed to the normalization of relations between Sudan and Israel and to end the state of belligerence between their nations.” However, while the UAE and Bahrain agreements immediately established full diplomatic relations and referenced exchanging ambassadors, the Sudan joint statement did not. A senior administration official said that opening embassies had not even been addressed during the negotiations. Instead, the Sudan joint statement appears to specifically commence only economic and trade relations, with a broader relationship remaining more aspirational.
Beyond the circumscribed words of the joint statement, there are other signs that Sudan is inclined to move slowly towards normalization with Israel. Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s military council and the country’s de facto head of state, said key steps in enhancing relations with Israel will be delayed until they are submitted for approval by a legislative council which has not yet been established. Meanwhile, three Sudanese political parties responded to the joint statement by threatening to withdraw from the coalition backing Sudan’s transitional government.
Unless appropriately bolstered, progress towards Sudan-Israel peace risks stalling or worse. History shows that steps towards peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors can collapse in the absence of sufficient traction. Israel and Lebanon signed a peace agreement in 1983, but Lebanon canceled it a year later. Four other Arab states each at one time had but then canceled formal economic or other less-than-full diplomatic relations with Israel—Morocco (1994-2000), Oman (1996-2000), Qatar (1996-2000), and Tunisia (1996-2000).
The extent to which stable Sudanese democracy and comprehensive, lasting Sudan-Israel peace result from the recent U.S.-Sudan rapprochement depends heavily on next steps by Washington to implement two still-pending elements of the multipart agreement it reached with Khartoum in October. Three elements of the deal were implemented quickly. The United States announced it would remove Sudan from the state sponsor of terrorism list, appropriately reflecting the reality in Khartoum since Omar al-Bashir was deposed in 2019. Sudan declared it would improve relations with Israel and swiftly turned over $335 million in compensation for its role in the al Qaeda bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000.
One still-pending element of the agreement is the Trump administration’s promise, which must be ratified by Congress, that Sudan will receive sovereign immunity as a shield against lawsuits for other past terrorist attacks sponsored by Khartoum. The other still-pending element is the administration’s commitment to multi-faceted economic assistance for Sudan.
Had Sudan never been placed on the state sponsor of terrorism list, it would, like other foreign governments, be largely immune from lawsuits in the United States. However, there is a special exception to such sovereign immunity for countries on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. At issue is whether Sudan is to receive sovereign immunity for all remaining acts of international terrorism which the Bashir dictatorship sponsored after it was placed on the list in 1993.
On October 30, the United States and Sudan signed an agreement pursuant to which Khartoum transferred the $335 million (as compensation for the Kenya, Tanzania, and USS Cole attacks) to an escrow account until Congress agrees to provide Sudan with immunity for all other past terror attacks. But Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and other senators have opposed providing Sudan with protection against claims by U.S. victims of al Qaeda’s attacks on September 11, 2001. U.S. courts have not ordered Sudan to pay for those attacks, but lawsuits are in progress.
If Congress does not agree to such immunity, the prospect of pending lawsuits against Khartoum will likely deter U.S. companies from commencing business with Sudan. As a result, Khartoum would not receive the full economic benefits of its rapprochement with the United States. This could in turn both destabilize Sudan’s transition to democracy and stall progress on its relations with Israel.
The Biden administration and Congress will need to grapple with how to square Sudan’s desire to move on from the sins of the Bashir regime with U.S. government’s responsibility to pursue justice for the 9/11 families. This could involve comparing the extent of Sudan’s responsibility for 9/11 with the extent of the responsibility of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, which have yet to provide any compensation to 9/11 victims.
In seeking to turn a new page, Sudan has made significant reforms since ousting Bashir. Apostasy is no longer punishable by death; female genital mutilation is criminalized; and public flogging is abolished. Khartoum has also reportedly clamped down on Hamas, which previously used Sudan as a smuggling route.
That said, not all of Bashir’s legacy has been removed. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, the warlord who has long led the forces brutalizing Sudan’s Darfur region, serves as vice-chair of the country’s new governing council. Violence in Darfur has continued since Bashir’s ouster, with Arab militias raping, plundering, and massacring with impunity. The transitional government signed a peace deal in October, hoping to end the conflict in Darfur, and Bashir is being tried in Sudan for war crimes committed in Darfur. But his trial has been marked by delays.
Sudan’s progress on all fronts is threatened by its extreme poverty. Some nine million Sudanese are in urgent need of food aid. Sudan’s transitional government has reason to fear that normalization, absent sufficient economic benefits in return, could increase political unrest. Removal of Sudan’s state sponsor of terrorism designation will help, as it deterred banks and other companies from doing business with Sudan. It also prohibited the United States from voting in favor of IMF and World Bank debt relief packages for Khartoum. In addition, Sudan stands to gain from U.S. and regional economic assistance to rebuild its shattered economy.
But most of these economic benefits are currently hard to quantify and may take years to be felt on Sudanese streets. For example, how much debt relief will the World Bank and IMF provide, which companies will commence business with Sudan (even with sovereign immunity restored), and when and how will this translate to improving the lives of average Sudanese? The next U.S. administration and Congress should prioritize ensuring that Sudan receives sufficient World Bank, IMF, American, and regional economic and food aid to keep Khartoum headed in the right direction. Firm support from Washington could be pivotal to a successful Sudanese transition to democracy.
As this process unfolds, Washington may need to be patient with Sudan and to keep Khartoum’s limits in mind. Each additional improved relationship between Israel and an Arab country, including Sudan, is good for the United States and the region. But a cautionary lesson is provided by the five prior Israeli rapprochements—with Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and Tunisia—which collapsed absent sufficient traction. The current enthusiastic embrace of peace with Israel by the UAE and Bahrain will be much more encouraging to other Arab states if it is not accompanied by a collapsed process involving a weakened Sudanese government giving in to protestors.