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Sudan tells Pompeo it can’t normalise Israel ties now

Sudan said Tuesday it cannot establish diplomatic relations with Israel for now, dashing US hopes for a speedy breakthrough during a visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok told Pompeo that Sudan’s transitional government — which replaced ousted strongman Omar al-Bashir last year and is set to rule until 2022 elections — has “no mandate” to take such a weighty step.

The announcement was a setback to a charm offensive by the US and Israel to forge more ties between the Jewish state and the Arab world following a landmark US-brokered August 13 agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Israel has for decades been technically at war with Sudan, an East African country which for years supported hardline Islamist forces under Bashir, and which remains on a US State Department blacklist of backers of terrorism.

Hamdok urged the US not to link “the subject of lifting Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list and the subject of normalisation with Israel,” his spokesman said.

The coalition which led Sudan’s protests, the Forces of Freedom and Change, noted “the right of Palestinians to their land and to a free and dignified life” and argued that the government has no mandate to normalise ties with Israel.

Hamdok’s office said he had made the same point to Pompeo, the first US chief diplomat to visit Sudan since 2005.

“The prime minister clarified that the transitional period in Sudan is being led by a wide alliance with a specific agenda — to complete the transition, achieve peace and stability in the country and hold free elections,” government spokesman Faisal Saleh said in a statement.

Hamdok told Pompeo that his interim government “does not have a mandate beyond these tasks or to decide on normalisation with Israel”, the statement said.

As Pompeo left on a flight to the Gulf state of Bahrain, senior US State Department official later said that “no one should expect an overnight peace agreement” and that “we were very pleased with the conversations we had with Sudan’s political leadership”, with talks set to continue.

“There is no question that normalising (relations) with Israel would unlock enormous economic opportunity and jobs for the people of Sudan.”

– Terror watch-list –

When Pompeo arrived hours earlier, he tweeted that he had flown to Khartoum on a historic “first official non-stop flight” from Tel Aviv.

The US top diplomat also met Sudan’s Sovereign Council chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan for talks which the State Department had said would express US “support for deepening the Sudan-Israel relationship”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had met Burhan in February in Uganda and later announced that they had agreed to cooperate towards normalising ties. Sudan’s cabinet however later denied that Burhan had made such a promise.

Sudan’s new government has vowed to break with the Bashir era and launched sweeping social and political reforms.

Bashir is on trial over the Islamist-backed coup that brought him to power over three decades ago.

The cash-strapped country hopes Washington will soon take it off its terrorism blacklist as it seeks to fully re-integrate into the international community and attract more aid and investment.

Sudan has been on the list since 1993 because of its earlier support for jihadists, including Osama bin Laden, who lived in the country for years in the 1990s before heading to Afghanistan.

Sudan has been in talks on compensating the victims of Bashir-era Al-Qaeda attacks, including the 2000 USS Cole bombing in Yemen and the simultaneous 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Hamdok wrote on Twitter that he and Pompeo had a “direct & transparent conversation regarding delisting Sudan” from the terror list and on receiving US government support.

“I continue to look forward to positive tangible steps in supporting the glorious Sudanese revolution.”

For Sudan, the question of normalising Israel ties is highly sensitive.

It was in Khartoum in 1967 that Arab leaders, their nations reeling from a blistering defeat against Israel in the Six-Day War, adopted their famous “Three No’s” resolution: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.”

Sudan expert Marc Lavergne of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) called Tuesday’s developments “a failure for the Americans, who thought they could force a poor and fragile country like Sudan to normalise its relations with Israel.”

“But the Sudanese government reacted wisely,” he said.

Sudan “is already divided enough, there’s no need to add more with (the question of) normalisation with Israel, on which there’s no consensus. Sudan has other fish to fry with all the problems it has.”

Sudan faces a deep economic crisis, laid low by long years of US sanctions and the 2011 secession of the oil-rich south.

The United Nations says more than 9.6 million people, almost a quarter of the population, suffer severe food insecurity.