When US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s pre-recorded speech from the rooftop of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, hailing President Donald Trump’s foreign policy triumphs, was being broadcast at the Republican National Convention, he was in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum trying to salvage something from his disastrous Mideast tour.
Pompeo’s Mideast tour was supposed to be a precursor to the so-called ‘deal of the century’ as envisaged by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and the Arab states establishing ties with Israel were to be cherries on the cake.
As most Arab states, which are trusted allies of the US, developed cold feet over relations with the Jewish state, Pompeo turned his attention to a state, which hosted Osama bin Laden as ‘guest’ and figures in the US list of state sponsoring terrorism.
Military dictator Omar al-Bashir, who faces genocide and war crimes charges at International Criminal Court (ICC) and ruled for more than 30 years, was overthrown last year by public protest over rising food and fuel prices.
The interim government headed by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has inherited a hugely indebted economy and needs the US backing to help write off $60 billion in past debts or access new multilateral lending.
This is the reason why Pompeo directly rushed to Sudan from Israel, hoping that by dangling the international lending carrot and removal from the list of states sponsoring terrorism could persuade Sudan to recognise Israel and give his doomed tour some semblance of success.
Before air dashing to Khartoum, Pompeo should have known that the interim government, which he was trying to woo, had earlier this month sacked a Sudanese foreign ministry spokesman who said Khartoum was looking forward to making a peace deal with Israel.
Pompeo’s charm offensive came to an abrupt halt when Hamdok, who is set to rule until 2022 elections, said that he has “no mandate” to take such a weighty step. He made it clear to the secretary of state not to link removal of Sudan from the US State Department’s blacklist of backers of terrorism with normalising ties with Israel.
Hamdok told Pompeo 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. He said his government “does not have a mandate beyond these tasks or to decide on normalisation with Israel, at the same time stressing “the right of Palestinians to their land and to a free and dignified life”.
Last year when protests against Bashir were getting widespread, the embattled leader had claimed that he has been advised to normalise relations with Israel to ensure stability in the country. Although he did not name the person who advised him, Bashir clearly hinted that the Jewish state was behind the protests.
This is also why Hamdok took this stand despite Sudan’s Sovereign Council chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February in Uganda to discuss the issue of normalising ties.
Sudan has just come out of a 30-year-old dictatorship of Bashir and any peace overture towards Israel may give the imprisoned dictator another chance of resurrection.
In fact, most political observers are of the view that Hamdok’s firm stand on Israel has enhanced the image of the government as it at this stage does not need any distraction.
Sudan expert Marc Lavergne of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) says: “It’s 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.”
Now, the real question is that if Pompeo could not woo a poor and hugely indebted country, how he would convince oil-rich Gulf states?