US eyes Sudan for Israeli peace pact
President Trump’s weighs chance to broker new Middle East deal.
The Trump administration is preparing to remove Sudan from a list of states that sponsor terrorism, seeking another foreign policy victory before the election but putting at risk the compensation for victims of terrorist attacks that US courts have concluded were carried out with Khartoum’s support.
Sudan has been on the terrorism list since 1993 and, as a result, has been restricted from receiving the global assistance that would help stabilise its new government and foment democracy. Its delisting is widely expected in the next few weeks, according to sources at the State Department.
That would also clear the way for Sudan to normalise diplomatic relations with Israel in an accord similar to those the Trump administration helped the Jewish state cement this month with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and that President Donald Trump celebrated at the White House last week with a promise that other nations would soon join them.
A full diplomatic accord between Israel and Sudan would be difficult, if not impossible, while Sudan remains on the US terrorism list. But the administration intends to move ahead without legislation from Congress that would assure immediate compensation for victims of bombings against US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the destroyer USS Cole in 2000 and their families, who have expected to be paid a $335 million (10.5 billion baht) settlement from Sudan for harbouring militants who carried out the attacks.
“It’s basically enabling Sudan to get off the list without any penalty,” said Riz Khaliq, a former Commerce Department official who was injured in the attack on the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. “There won’t be any reason for Sudan to make the victims whole in any way,” Mr Khaliq said. “They have what they wanted, and frankly the victims who were impacted by the terrorist list are left high and dry.”
“That’s really painful and distressing,” he added. The new plan would place the money in an escrow account, to be released to victims once Congress gives Sudan immunity from future legal claims for past terrorist attacks. But Congress refused to include the legal protections in a spending bill that was negotiated this week, all but certainly delaying the payout — if it happens at all — until after the election Nov 3.
Officials cautioned that a final decision to remove Sudan from the terrorism list must be approved by the White House. But Mr Trump is not expected to wait for Congress to act. With six weeks before the election, Mr Trump has cited the warming ties among once-rival states in the Middle East and North Africa as an example of his administration’s diplomatic prowess. Five additional countries are considering formal relations with Israel, the president said on Sept 15, and officials have said they include Sudan.
“We’ll be signing up other nations,” Mr Trump said at the White House last week, shortly before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel signed the accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, with the deputy Sudanese ambassador in the audience. “And these are very strong agreements. These are very strong. This is really peace. This is serious peace.”
Cementing diplomacy between Israel and Sudan would be a coup for the administration, given their turbulent history. It was in Khartoum after the Arab-Israeli War in 1967 that the Arab League announced its “three no’s” resolution, which opposed peace, negotiations and recognition of Israel. That was widely recognised among Arab states until President Anwar Sadat of Egypt made a historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977. Until last week’s accords, Egypt and Jordan were the only two Arab states with formal diplomatic relations with Israel.
Sudan was placed on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism after officials concluded in 1993 that the government of its leader at the time, Omar al-Bashir, provided refuge and other support to Hezbollah and Palestinian groups. Only three other nations — Iran, North Korea and Syria — are on the State Department list that restricts assistance from the United States and, effectively, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
But in 2016, after Sudan cut its diplomatic ties with Iran, the United States began easing sanctions against Khartoum to reward its cooperation on counterterrorism missions and ending military attacks against Sudanese citizens. The detente was fuelled last year by al-Bashir’s ouster and international efforts to support democracy in the new transitional government.
Israel has cultivated its own nascent ties with the country. In February, Mr Netanyahu met with Sudan’s de facto leader, Lt Gen Abdel-Fattah Burhan, for talks in Uganda that were reportedly arranged by the United Arab Emirates. Days later, Sudan began allowing Israeli commercial planes to fly in its airspace.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has the authority to remove Sudan from the terrorism list without congressional approval. Meeting last month in Khartoum with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, Mr Pompeo described delisting Sudan as “a critical bilateral priority for both countries.” The two men also “discussed positive developments in the Sudan-Israel relationship,” according to a State Department summary of the meeting. They spoke again on Sept 12.
Sudan’s lawyer in Washington, Christopher Curran, said the transitional government wanted to “fully rejoin the community of respectable nations.” He said that would happen by Sudan entering into international trade, settling past liabilities and with “the forthcoming dedesignation as a state sponsor of terrorism.”
Until recently, Mr Pompeo has indicated he would wait to take Sudan off the terrorism list until payments for the bombing victims are assured. But with a settlement between the United States and Sudan snarled in Congress, officials said Mr Pompeo was willing to move forward.
Sudan insists it will hold the $335 million in victims’ compensation in escrow until it receives legal immunity from Congress to protect itself from new financial claims for past terrorist attacks. But Sudan is unlikely to hold the money indefinitely, according to a government representative for the country, given its rampant poverty, rapidly weakening economy and $60 billion in international debt.
The fragility of a years-long process to bolster Sudan’s stability and compensate terrorism victims alarmed a bipartisan group of senators who noted in a Sept 14 letter a “rare opportunity” for the United States to help the country “move away from a regime that, for decades, supported terrorism and stifled freedom.”
But Congress is divided over the administration’s approach. Some lawmakers have objected to unequal distribution of payments for the victims of the East Africa embassy bombings that would award US citizens far more than Kenyan and Tanzanian employees — nearly all of whom are black — who were foreign citizens at the time of the attacks.
Additionally, families of victims of the Sept 11, 2001, attacks are seeking compensation since Sudan was a long-time haven for al-Qaeda. Supported by lawmakers who represent the region, including Sen Chuck Schumer, D-NY, the minority leader, those families have broadly objected to the immunity legislation before their own legal cases against Sudan are resolved. “Congress should not deny families of Sept 11 victims their day in court,” said Alex Nguyen, Mr Schumer’s spokesman.
Congressional officials said that it was possible a last-minute deal could be reached — including one that would mollify some of the families of Sept 11 victims by making them eligible for $1 billion in additional payouts from a separate Justice Department victims’ fund.