Sudan Ambassador Says Conflict With Israel 'Fruitless,' Warns on Iran Threat

President Donald Trump will host the signing ceremony of the Israel-United Arab Emirates normalization deal—known as the Abraham Accord—later this month, finalizing a historic diplomatic coup that will boost the president's foreign policy credentials ahead of the November election.

The accord is not a peace deal—Israel and the UAE have never been at war. But it is nonetheless a potent symbol of a new emerging political reality in the Gulf, where a fresh generation of rulers are looking to closer ties with Israel and the U.S. in the face of the threat from Iran.

The intractable Palestinian question has long hamstrung Israeli efforts to normalize ties and foster closer cooperation with its Arab neighbors. The question remains unanswered, though Israel agreed to halt—or perhaps only delay—its planned annexation of Palestinian West Bank land as part of the Abraham Accord.

A lasting two-state solution remains a distant goal, Israeli military occupation of West Bank areas continues, and Israeli settlements—considered illegal under international law despite U.S. and Israeli claims to the contrary— are still growing.

Palestinian political parties remain divided while the punishing Israel-Egyptian blockade on the Gaza Strip continues, as do cross-border rocket and guerrilla attacks by militants and Israeli strikes.

The Trump administration proposed a peace blueprint earlier this year, but it was dismissed out of hand by the Palestinians and their allies. Trump's government has been unquestionably pro-Israeli, and the Palestinians decried the so-called "deal of the century" as a formalization of lasting Israeli control over a neutered, fragmented Palestinian state.

Arab leaders have historically put the Palestinian question at the very top of their foreign policy objectives. Only Egypt, Jordan and now the UAE have signed normalization deals with Israel for this reason. But this traditional animosity appears to be easing.

When visiting the U.S. in 2018, for example, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly told Jewish leaders that the Palestinians should accept Trump's peace plan or "shut up and stop complaining."

U.S. officials and regional observers are now looking for who might follow in the UAE's steps. Oman and Bahrain have been touted as possible candidates, as have Sudan and—a little more ambitiously—Saudi Arabia.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo toured the Gulf shortly after the Abraham Accord was announced, underscoring the potential benefits for the UAE and gently pressing for its neighbors to follow suit.

Among them was Sudan, whose Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok told Pompeo the transitional government currently in charge there has no mandate to normalize ties. The current administration took power after hardliner Omar al-Bashir was deposed last year.

An Israel-Sudan deal isn't imminent, but Pompeo traveled to Sudan on what he called the first official direct flight from Tel Aviv to the country; an important diplomatic signal.

Sudan's ambassador to the U.S., Noureldin Satti, told Newsweek that his government will support any deal that brings peace to the region, though stressed normalization with Israel is not a fait accompli.

"The Sudanese government has not pronounced itself formally on the Israel-UAE deal," he explained. "As a peacemaker, I believe that whatever is good for peace is good for the region. The region needs peace more than anything else, but peace has to be inclusive and all-embracing."

"As things stand today, it is difficult to say that the Sudanese people are ready and willing to normalize ties with Israel," he added. "This is a highly controversial issue and the Sudanese people need time to weigh the pros and cons. But, yet again, the issue of incentives and dividends is important."

UAE, ISrael, Sudan, US, Iran, normalization, deal
A combination picture shows a man in Israel (L) and another in the United Arab Emirates (R) wearing protective face masks bearing the American, Israeli and Emirati flags, as Israeli and American delegations arrived in Abu Dhabi to finalise a normalization deal between the countries on August 31, 2020. NIR ELIAS/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

Incentives and dividends must go to the Palestinians too, Satti said, though he acknowledged that decades of conflict and failed talks show a new approach is needed.

"The Palestinian question has been with us for over 70 years now without being resolved. Its continuation is in nobody's interest. Any new ideas to resolve it are certainly welcome, provided that certain realities are taken into consideration."

Satti does not agree that Arab leaders are sidelining the Palestinian issue. "To my mind, all Arabs back the Palestinian cause," he said. "But some of them are convinced that a change of strategy is needed. A strategy of constant confrontation has proved to be fruitless, even counterproductive."

The Palestinian leadership will need to be brought back into negotiations, regardless of who is in the White House next year. Suspension of Israel's planned occupation is one example of the concessions required, Satti said, though critics have decried what they see as a reward for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatening unilateral and illegal land seizure.

Satti declined to take a position on Trump's controversial peace plan. "We're working behind closed doors on this issue," he explained.

Re-engagement by the divided Palestinians could produce "a new situation," Satti said, "where they can be better accommodated, being in a better position than where they are now with a state of confrontation and hostility."

But on Wednesday the Palestinian Authority again urged Arab nations to reject the Abraham Accord, warning no one was mandated to speak on their behalf. PA Foreign Minister Riyad Malki told Arab League foreign ministers the deal represents an "earthquake that undermined joint Arab action."

Iran is a significant push factor in closer Arab-Israeli relations, pressing leaders to make common cause despite historical enmity. The Trump administration has been working hard to build a new anti-Tehran axis in the Gulf, facilitating cooperation between them and arming them too.

The joint statement marking the UAE deal predicted "closer security coordination" between the signatories, and shortly after Pompeo visited Abu Dhabi to discuss "countering Iran's malign influence in the region" with Emirati officials.

"There is no doubt that Iran's hegemonic policies constitute a threat to peace and stability in the region," Satti told Newsweek. "When we look at the situation in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, we see the hand of Iran. It is indeed a great danger, but probably not the only one."

U.S.-Iranian tensions have been high throughout Trump's presidency, spiking after he withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—i.e. the Iran nuclear deal—in 2018. Since then, Iran has sabotaged commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf, shot down a U.S. drone, and an American drone strike killed Major General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.

Both sides climbed down from the brink of war after Iran retaliated with a ballistic missile strike on U.S. troops in Iraq, and subsequently accidentally shot down a passenger plane over Tehran killing 178 people.

But Trump has made no secret of the fact he intends his "maximum pressure" campaign to inflict maximum pain on Tehran. Talk of regime change is now routine in Washington, though few have proposed a practical blueprint and Trump has denied that is his goal.

Satti said other pressing regional threats include the remnants of the Islamic State militant group, and the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian land; a conflict Iran is engaged in through funding and arming militant groups in Gaza Strip, including Hamas which controls the coastal enclave.

Sudan has plenty of domestic concerns. Last month, the transitional government agreed a draft peace deal with the rebel Sudan Revolutionary Front, potentially ending decades of war in which hundreds of thousands of people have died.

The deal is no guarantee of lasting stability. General elections are scheduled in 2022 as part of the settlement that unseated Bashir, but no one is under any illusion as to how quickly things can change.

Khartoum is also busy resetting ties with the U.S. Indeed, Satti is the first Sudanese ambassador appointed to the U.S. in two decades. Sudan has been on the State Department's State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) list since 1993—punishment for backing Islamist groups including Hamas and Hezbollah—and getting removed is a top priority.

"It is even long overdue," Satti said of Sudan's removal from the SST. "SST is a stigma and the Sudanese people would like it to be removed because it was brought on them by the regime that they fought to get rid of," he explained.

"They see the removal of SST as their rehabilitation in the eyes of the world community; not least that it opens the way for normalized relations with the U.S. and enables Sudan to benefit from financial flows and transactions, investments and debt relief thus far denied to it."

Some reports have suggested the U.S. might tie Israeli normalization to Sudan's removal from the SST. Satti and his government have stressed this would not be helpful for any of the parties involved.

"Sudan's position on this issue has been clearly pronounced by the transitional government," he said. "To my mind, removal of the SST and other positive actions that follow should be an incentive rather than a conditionality."

Israel, Palestine, annexation, Sudan, UAE, West Bank
Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian protester during a demonstration against the Israeli settlement expansion in the village of Jbara, south of Tulkarm in the occupied West Bank, on September 1, 2020. JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

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