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Trump Announces Sudan Will Move to Normalize Relations With Israel

WASHINGTON — President Trump announced on Friday that Israel and Sudan have opened economic ties as a pathway toward normalized relations, with Sudan becoming the third Arab state to formally set aside hostilities in recent weeks as the president looks to score a final foreign policy achievement ahead of the election.

The deal, however, appeared to stop short of establishing full diplomatic recognition between the two countries, as Israel recently has with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — despite Mr. Trump’s description of it as a major agreement.

“HUGE win today for the United States and for peace in the world,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter.

Announcing the deal in the Oval Office — while on a conference call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Sudan’s civilian and military leaders, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan — Mr. Trump did not respond when asked if the accord amounted to full diplomatic normalization between Sudan and Israel.

A joint statement from all three countries that was released by the White House made no mention of Sudan and Israel opening embassies in one another’s capitals, and a senior Trump administration official said doing so has not been a part of the negotiations.

That ambiguity appeared to reflect the wider reluctance of Sudan, where public hostility to Israel runs deep. A senior Sudanese official said his government had bowed to months of American pressure over Israel, despite fears of a domestic backlash, in return for Sudan’s removal from an American list of state sponsors of terrorism. Sudan has been on the list since 1993, accused of supporting groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

Mr. Trump appeared to deliver his part of the bargain on Monday when he announced he was removing Sudan from the list. On Friday, he formalized the decision by sending it to Congress for final approval.

The rapprochement will allow economic and trade relations between Israel and Sudan — a sprawling, economically struggling East African country that only last year emerged from decades of dictatorship — by focusing at first on agricultural products and financial assistance.

Mr. Netanyahu trumpeted Israel’s new ties with Sudan as “another dramatic breakthrough for peace, another Arab country joining the peace circle.”

“What a tremendous turnaround,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

Israeli analysts, however, gave a more measured welcome. “It’s not a game changer, but it’s a step in the right direction,” said Brig. Gen. Assaf Orion, a veteran Israeli military strategist now at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

In a tweet, Mr. Hamdok welcomed the American decision to take Sudan off the terrorism list, but made no mention of his country’s move toward Israel.

The stakes of the deal are dramatically different for the two countries.

For Israel, the warming with Sudan is a largely symbolic achievement, partnering with an impoverished Arab country that holds little sway across the Middle East.

But for Sudan’s fragile transitional government, which came to power after the ouster last year of longtime dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir, normalization with Israel constitutes a significant gamble.

Support for the Palestinians remains strong inside the country, and Sudanese officials have privately complained of being railroaded into a deal over Israel that was driven by American political interests, at a time when Sudan is struggling to get onto its feet.

The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, blasted Sudan’s move toward normalization, while another senior Palestinian official called it a “new stab in the back.”

Mr. Trump has had at least one eye firmly on the political benefits he might reap from brokering deals between Israel and its Arab adversaries, promoting them as a game-changing feat of diplomacy in the region. He also seeks to broker diplomatic recognition between Israel and additional Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, after the deals with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

In a joint statement on Friday, Mr. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz said they would not oppose the sale of “certain weapons systems” to the U.A.E., in an apparent reference to F-35 fighter jets, Reaper drones and electronic warfare planes. Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz said that they agreed not to oppose the sale of the weapons systems to the U.A.E. because the U.S. is “upgrading Israel’s military capabilities and maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge.”

Though foreign policy issues rarely move votes in American presidential elections, Mr. Trump’s campaign hopes to rally Jewish and evangelical Christian support by showing it can coax Arab nations to accept Israel.

“The Trump team is throwing whatever they can muster at the wall and hoping something sticks,” said Zach Vertin, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who, as a State Department policy adviser during the Obama administration, worked for the U.S. special envoy to Sudan.

However, Mr. Vertin said, “I’m not convinced this gambit delivers Trump much of an electoral bump at this late juncture.”

Earlier this year, Mr. Hamdok repeatedly stated his reticence to recognize Israel. But Sudan’s dire economic straits, with long lines for food and fuel snaking through the streets of the capital, Khartoum, forced his hand.

Worried that the growing economic crisis could destabilize or even collapse the government, and derail Sudan’s transition to democracy, civilian officials dropped their opposition to ties with Israel in return for removal from the U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism.

That process, which formally started on Friday, paves the way for Sudan to receive international debt relief, financial aid and a raft of other measures.

That could include donations of wheat and promises of hundreds of millions of dollars in investment that Trump administration officials have promised Sudan in recent weeks, the Sudanese official said.

Unless Congress objects — and U.S. officials said that was not expected — Sudan will be taken off the terrorism list in December. But lawmakers remain divided over a related issue.

As part of the deal for coming off the list, Sudan has agreed to pay $335 million in compensation to victims of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2000 attack on the destroyer Cole. American courts have concluded that Sudan was complicit in both attacks, harboring Qaeda militants who carried them out.

In return, Sudan has demanded that it receive immunity from other lawsuits and financial claims resulting from terror activity during Mr. al-Bashir’s rule. The $335 million will be released to victims after that happens.

But only Congress can approve immunity legislation. And over the last several months, families of people who were killed in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have asked lawmakers to delay giving immunity to Sudan until courts decide whether they, too, are eligible for victims’ compensation. That ultimately could cost Sudan billions of dollars and take years to resolve.

A congressional official said lawmakers are now considering a compromise that would make Sudan liable for existing claims filed by 9/11 families, but not future claims.

The reconciliation between the two former foes started in February when General al-Burhan met in Uganda with Mr. Netanyahu. Soon after, in a confidence-building gesture, Israel’s national airline, El Al, was allowed to fly through Sudanese airspace on routes between Israel and South America.

But tensions quickly erupted between Sudan’s military leaders, who appeared to broadly favor normalization, and civilian leaders under Mr. Hamdok, who were openly hostile toward warmer ties. As Sudan’s economic crisis worsened in August, though, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Khartoum to press the case for normalization again.

Sudan experts warn that recognition of Israel could trigger potentially destabilizing street protests that would weaken the government — possibly led by the Islamists who were the backbone of Mr. al-Bashir’s regime for decades, although their potential to whip up unrest is unclear.

While some Islamist groups have mounted small antigovernment street protests in recent months, the government has taken steps to purge Islamists from the army and intelligence services said Cameron Hudson, a Sudan expert at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

“It’s been hard for all of us to have a good sense of what the Islamists are doing in Khartoum,” Mr. Hudson said. “Are they in retreat or are they lying in wait? It’s hard to know.”

Lara Jakes reported from Washington, Declan Walsh from Nairobi and Adam Rasgon from Jerusalem. Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington, and David M. Halbfinger and Ronen Bergman from Jerusalem.

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