Three years after Gulf states Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates made headlines as the third and fourth Arab countries to normalize their relations with Israel, the two North African countries that followed suit are not quite as far along in their relations.

In October and December 2020, Sudan and Morocco announced that they had agreed to normalization with Israel.

General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the leader of Sudan’s civil-military Transitional Sovereign Council, secretly met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February 2020.

Al-Burhan was buoyed by signals from the United States that it was willing to consider removing Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in return, saying he took the step in Sudan’s “utmost interest.” undertaken by the people.

But while diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel developed into full cooperation in various areas, Khartoum’s agreement with Israel remained nominal due to the outbreak of civil war between rival generals in April.

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, right, and Benjamin Netanyahu [File: Reuters]

According to Kholood Khair, a Sudanese political analyst, the Abraham Accords were a way for the Sudanese interim government “to try to build bridges between itself and the Americans after the fall of Sudan.” [former dictator] Omar al-Bashir, and also with himself and the Emiratis, who are very anti-Muslim brotherhood,” she said.

Al-Bashir, who ruled Sudan for 30 years until he was overthrown in a military coup in 2019, had maintained a military-political Islamist coalition as the basis of his National Congress Party.

Khair said the deal had no “civil dividends” because “the military was much more interested in some of the spying programs, surveillance programs, etc. that Israel had.”

“The Israelis didn’t trust the Sudanese enough to give them that equipment, but all the other things that could have been on the table – agricultural cooperation, technology, etc. – weren’t,” she explained.

Rabat and Israel’s close cooperation

Morocco’s relations with Israel are in stark contrast, as both have deepened intelligence cooperation, arms and technology trade, and participated in joint military exercises.

Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa project director at Crisis Group, said relations between Rabat and Israel had reached a level of cooperation that went beyond normalization.

“Israel and Morocco not only have a completely normal diplomatic relationship, but they have laid the foundation for comprehensive political, economic and, above all, military cooperation,” he told Al Jazeera.

“From Israeli investments to the sale of advanced equipment and weapons to Rabat, the two countries work very closely together.”

Last July, Israel also recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, which was reportedly a prerequisite for Rabat to open its embassy in Tel Aviv.

Unidentified Moroccan and Israeli officials sign memoranda of understanding during a visit by Israeli envoys in Rabat, Morocco, December 22, 2020 [Shereen Talaat/Reuters]

Fabiani said this recognition gave a green light to the sale of advanced Israeli military equipment and weapons to Morocco.

“From Israel’s perspective, Morocco is now a close partner in North Africa, and Moroccan narratives that they face the same enemies – Rabat claims that the Polisario Front is supported by Iran – have helped cement this relationship,” he explained.

“The sale of weapons and equipment is a way for Israel to gain new ‘friends’ in the region and expand its influence, regardless of the impact this has on tensions on the ground.”

Pro-Palestinian civic groups in Morocco and other left-wing activists have raised objections to the new relationship between the two countries, but many fear political reprisals if they speak out.

“The connection between normalization and Western Sahara has made it difficult for many Moroccans to openly oppose this development, since Western Sahara is a sacred national political cause in Morocco,” Fabiani said.

“Many other Moroccans have been silent or have not explicitly spoken out against normalization, while other constituencies [some Amazigh activists, for example] “We have publicly welcomed and supported this step as they see it as an opportunity to distance Morocco from pan-Arabism and to strengthen pluralism in the country by restoring Morocco’s Jewish identity.”

Three nos and three yeses?

In Sudan, civil society’s response to normalization was ignored because it was not a priority for them, said Sudan affairs analyst El-Waleed Mousa.

“They had more pressing problems, such as drafting the constitution and disentangling military officers from political and executive affairs,” he said, referring to the Sovereign Council body.

The signing of the agreements was done “in secret” and the Sudanese generals, Mousa said, “did not have the courage to rationalize their plan by sharing it with the public.”

Khartoum has long been remembered by Israelis as the city where the Arab League announced its “Three No” resolution on Israel in 1967 – no recognition, no peace and no negotiations.

At a meeting with al-Burhan in February this year, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen – as part of the only foreign delegation sent to Sudan after the coup – said he was building and transforming a “new reality” with Sudan three nos in around three yeses.

“Yes to negotiations between Israel and Sudan, yes to recognition of Israel and yes to peace between states and between peoples,” Cohen said.

Analyst Khair said the usual actors opposing normalization were al-Bashir’s Islamist supporters. But it was under al-Bashir – not al-Burhan – that normalization first came up.

“It was in 2016 – when the Bashir regime turned away from Iran [to be] “As we get closer to Saudi Arabia and U.S. allies, the question of normalization has come up,” she said.

“The then leader of the Congress Party, Ibrahim Ghandour, had publicly said that normalization with Israel might be a good path for the regime as it seeks to woo various allies.”

“The way the generals tried to sell it was to say this was a way for us to get back into the global community after being a pariah state for so many years.” , added her.

Women chant slogans to protest against al-Burhan’s decision to meet the Israeli prime minister to normalize relations in Khartoum, Sudan, on February 7, 2020 [Marwan Ali/AP Photo]

While the nominal agreement signed under then US President Donald Trump represents more of a security act than a warm peace, the future of Israeli-Sudanese relations is up in the air.

“The Abraham Accords with Sudan were essentially based on military engagement,” Khair said. “Israel worked mainly with the generals who are now at war and for whom a future political position is very unlikely if negotiations go well.”

If the country had a civilian government, adherence to the Abraham Accords could be seen as a net worth, especially when portraying to the United States and the United Arab Emirates that the era of political Islam in Sudan is over, she continued.

And while it may be premature to think about it given the ongoing war, Khair said the nature of the agreements will change.

“There needs to be more areas of civil cooperation in agriculture, technology and possibly health,” she said.

“There will probably be a realignment of the agreements.”

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