Sudanese PM caught off guard by meeting with Netanyahu

Meeting between Israeli PM and Sudanese military chief, reportedly brokered by the UAE, was an attempt to woo the Trump administration into lifting Sudan's designation as a state sponsor of terror.

KHARTOUM - Sudan's military announced Wednesday it backed a surprise meeting held between the country's leader and Israel's premier in Uganda this week, saying the opening would help boost national security.

Sudan's Prime Minister meanwhile appeared rattled by the meeting between the head of Sudan's transitional military-civilian council, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Burhan met Netanyahu in Entebbe on Monday in a meeting that was not pre-announced.

Israel remains technically at war with Sudan, which supported hardline Islamists - including, for a period, Al-Qaeda - during the rule of autocrat Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted during mass protests last year.

On Tuesday, Burhan briefed the sovereign council and key ministers about his meeting, saying he met Netanyahu "to protect the national security of Sudan".

The military's support for Burhan on the matter came after top officers met at army headquarters in Khartoum.

"There was a meeting at the army headquarters today, and those present... were briefed about the visit ... and its impact on Sudan's national security," military spokesman Brigadier Amir Mohamed Al-Hassan said.

"The army is in favour of this (Burhan-Netanyahu) meeting as it is in the interest of Sudan's national security."

On Wednesday, Burhan met Sudanese editors to explain why he met Israel's premier.

Burhan told the editors "the main thing that pushed him to take the decision to meet ... (Netanyahu) was to secure some key benefits for Sudan," said Hassan, without elaborating.

"He said that brave decisions were needed in order to change the current situation in Sudan, to ease the economic pressures on Sudanese people, and also to change the internal and foreign policies of Sudan."

'Challenges and obstacles'

Sudan's Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok meanwhile appeared taken aback by the unannounced meeting in Uganda, insisting that all decisions related to Sudan's foreign affairs “should be made” exclusively by his Cabinet.

Hamdok's remarks were latest in a flurry of comments from government officials, Sudanese political parties and public figures who were stunned by the meeting, which was kept secret until an announcement by Netanyahu. Hamdok’s government said it wasn't consulted and only learned of the meeting through the media.

Burhan is Sudan's de facto leader and heads its military-civilian transitional council established following autocrat al-Bashir's ouster in a popular uprising that ended his 30-year rule last April. The transitional council is meant to be temporary, and has been tasked with overseeing the country's transition to full civilian rule.

“The road to meaningful change in Sudan is riddled with challenges and obstacles," Hamdok tweeted. “However, we must understand that abiding to legal institutional roles and responsibilities is key to building a truly democratic state."

“The transitional government as a whole must ensure accountability, responsibility and transparency in all decisions made,” he added.

Hamdok however welcomed Burhan’s statement later on Tuesday that Sudan still backs the Palestinian people's aspirations to have their independent state.

Soon after Monday's meeting in Entebbe, Netanyahu's office said the Israeli premier believed that post-Bashir Sudan was headed "in a positive direction".

It said he and Burhan had "agreed to start cooperation leading to normalisation of the relationship between the two countries".

'Stronger and healthier'

Sudan has long been part of a decades-old official Arab boycott of Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians and occupation of Arab lands.

Sudanese soldiers fought against Israel in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and the Six-Day War of 1967.

In the wake of the Six-Day War in which Israel occupied the Palestinian territories and seized the Golan Heights from Syria, Arab leaders held a historic meeting in Khartoum to announce what became known as the 'three nos' - no peace, no recognition, no negotiations with Israel.

Under Bashir, Sudan hosted Hamas headquarters and was used by Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps as a logistical hub for arms smuggling to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. The close ties with Iran under Bashir led to repeated Israeli air strikes, including on an alleged Iranian military factory in Khartoum in 2012. 

The Palestine Liberation Organization called Burhan and Netanyahu's meeting "a stab in the back of the Palestinian people". In a statement carried on official news agency WAFA, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Netanyahu and his US allies of "trying to liquidate the Palestinian cause".

But the meeting between Burhan and Netanyahu was likely more focused on domestic Sudanese concerns rather than the Palestinian cause. Reports said that the Sudanese military leader had sought to reach out to Tel Aviv to petition the Trump administration to change Sudan's designation as a state sponsor of terror.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later invited Burhan to talks in Washington that would focus on creating a "stronger, healthier US-Sudan bilateral relationship". A statement from the US State Department added that "Secretary Pompeo thanked General al-Burhan for his leadership in normalizing ties with Israel."

Some media reports have claimed that the meeting between Netanyahu and Burhan was initially brokered by the United Arab Emirates, which has close ties with the Sudanese military. Abu Dhabi is mindful of political change in Sudan and is looking to ensure Khartoum is brought further into a regional axis - led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel - that is opposed to Iranian interference in regional affairs.

Sudan is a member, alongside the UAE, of a Saudi-led military coalition that intervened in 2015 against Iran-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen.

And the United Nations said in a December report that five Sudanese armed groups had contributed thousands of combatants to fight in Libya alongside parties allied to the UAE.

A separate UN report on Sudan released this month also said that many Arabs from the conflict-wracked region of Darfur were fighting as "individual mercenaries" alongside Libyan warring parties.