CAIRO (AP) — A surprise meeting between Sudan’s leader and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stirred controversy in Sudan on Tuesday, with the government saying it wasn’t notified ahead of time and critics lambasting the talks on social media.
Others said the meeting would improve Sudan’s standing with the United States and help Khartoum shed its pariah image. For Israel, it was a major diplomatic breakthrough with an Arab African state, two days after the Arab League rejected President Donald Trump’s Mideast plan.
The Uganda meeting between Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the head of Sudan’s transitional government, and Netanyahu was kept secret but grabbed headlines late Monday when the Israeli leader announced the two had began talks on normalizing relations between their countries.
Sudan is desperate to lift sanctions linked to its listing by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terror — a key step toward ending its isolation and rebuilding the economy after the popular uprising last year that toppled the country’s autocrat Omar al-Bashir and installed the joint civilian-military sovereign council, headed by Burhan.
But Khartoum is also a longtime member of the Arab League and joined other members in rejecting Trump’s plan at a meeting in Cairo on Saturday. The U.S. plan, heavily in favor of Israel, would grant the Palestinians limited self-rule in parts of the occupied West Bank, while allowing Israel to annex all its settlements there and keep nearly all of east Jerusalem.
From Uganda, Netanyahu tweeted: “History!” while his office said the meeting with Burhan came at the invitation of Uganda. The statement said Netanyahu “believes that Sudan is moving in a new and positive direction” — an apparent reference to a possible removal from the terror list.
“We agreed to begin cooperation that will lead to normalization of relations between the two countries,” Netanyahu said.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the Burhan-Netanyahu talks in Uganda, and “thanked the Sudanese leader for his leadership in normalizing ties with Israel,” according to a statement from State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.
In a phone call a day earlier, Pompeo had invited Burhan to visit the U.S. Ortagus said Burhan’s visit to Washington would take place later in the year, without providing details.
The State Department said Pompeo and Burhan “underscored their shared desire to improve Sudan’s active participation in the region and international communities and their commitment to work towards a stronger, healthier U.S.-Sudan bilateral relationship.”
On social media, critics in Sudan denounced the meeting, accusing Burhan of trying to get on the Trump administration’s good side through Israel. Others applauded the meeting, arguing it was good for Sudan’s future.
“Our interest is above everything and Sudan first,” tweeted Mubarak Ardol, former spokesman of a rebel faction of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North that was part of the pro-democracy movement that led to al-Bashir’s ouster.
Prominent activist Amjed Farid said Burhan had no mandate from the people of Sudan to offer Netanyahu a “promise of that” which is not his to give.
Information Minister Faisal Mohamed Saleh, who also serves as the government spokesman, said the Cabinet learned of the meeting through the media and was not consulted beforehand. “We will wait for clarifications after” Burhan returns home from Uganda, Saleh said.
A senior Sudanese military official said the meeting was orchestrated by the United Arab Emirates and aimed at helping remove Sudan’s terror listing, which dates back to the 1990s, when Sudan briefly hosted Osama bin Laden and other wanted militants.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said Burhan agreed to meet Netanyahu because officials thought it would help “accelerate” the process of being removed from the terror list. He said only a “small circle” of top officials in Sudan, as well as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, knew about the meeting.
Sudan hosted the Arab League summit after the 1967 war that became famous for establishing the “three no’s”: No to peace with Israel, no to recognition of Israel and no to negotiations with Israel.
That consensus broke down when Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, and has further eroded in recent years as Israel has improved ties with Gulf Arab nations that share its concerns about Iran. Only two Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, have made peace with Israel.