Few Americans know much about Sudan, but now is a time to pay some attention to the country just south of Egypt.
Some know that Sudan's capital is Khartoum. Senior citizens might remember the 1966 British epic movie of the same name. It tells the story of the 1881 Islamist Mahdi rebellion against Egyptian rule, including the disastrous end of British General Charles 'Chinese' Gordon trying to get Brits and Egyptians out before the Mahdi's army took the city.
Why is Sudan important just now?
The Trump administration is taking Sudan off the list of 'state sponsors of terrorism,’ a list where only Iran, Syria, and North Korea will remain. This is welcome news for Sudan's reformist government, in power since the fall of dictator Omar al-Bashir amid widespread protests in 2019. That government is working to transform the country, years after civil war, genocide in its Darfur region, and its division into two countries, Sudan and South Sudan, left it destitute and a pariah.
As a result of its rehabilitation, Sudan will once again have access to the global financial system, international aid, and other benefits including international business investment. It's a genuine chance to modernize a country long on the periphery of African and Middle Eastern concerns. In politics you have to give in order to get, and in return, the Khartoum government is to normalize relations with Israel, following the remarkable Abrahamic Accords several weeks ago between Israel and two Gulf Arab countries, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Previous to this year’s diplomatic advances, only two Arab countries had normalized ties with Israel: Anwar Sadat's Egyptian government in 1979 and King Hussein's Jordan in 1994. A big difference is that those agreements were formal peace treaties, since both countries had actually gone to war with Israel. Now, other Arab Muslim countries are likely to follow suit. Morocco has been mentioned, and at some point, the most important one, Saudi Arabia, is expected to move.
The upshot is that, amazingly, the historic Arab-Israeli conflict is ending. That end is being marked with formal agreements establishing formal relations aimed at mutual prosperity and solutions to longstanding geopolitical problems. Of those countries that fought wars with Israel, only Syria remains outstanding. Nobody wants to deal with today's Syrian government, led by Bashar al-Assad, although it is worth noting that Bashar's father, the dictator Hafez al-Assad, had for years considered a peace treaty with Israel.
If Sudan does move, it would join the UAE and Bahrain as Muslim-majority countries who decide to formally accept Israel's 1948 establishment as a state in the former Palestine Mandate area. In fact, Israel is rapidly and openly being welcomed as an ally of nearly all the Arab countries against Shiite Iran.
But Arab reconciliation with Israel also indicates what one might call Palestine fatigue. Arab governments are finished waiting for Palestinians to find some arrangement with Israel. Whereas the old calculation was that an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty would lead to wider Arab recognition of Israel, the reverse seems now to be the case. Wider Arab normalization with Israel will leave the Palestinians on their own, to make peace with Israel as they can, and from a worse bargaining position. Hardline Palestinian resistance has become a dead-end street.
Yet even if Khartoum and Jerusalem establish formal relations, hostility between peoples remains an issue. The average Israeli doesn't think much about the Sudanese, but Sudanese popular hostility to Israel and to Jews is part of the wider Arab Muslim heritage of the 20th Century. Sudan's government is therefore rightly concerned that social protests could erupt inside the country among an Arab population long suffused with anti-Israel, anti-Semitic attitudes. Nevertheless, U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital was the object of only mild protests in Arab countries — and, one might add, in the Palestinian West Bank. Among Arab peoples there is probably some degree of Israel fatigue as well.
In any case, even long histories of hatred can evolve: Bahrain and Israel have just announced visa-free travel between the two countries, meaning tourism as well as business. Airline privileges will be extended, and civilians will be able to visit each other's countries, a minor miracle of our times.
This first instance of visa-free travel between Israel and an Arab country puts a political science professor in mind of Immanuel Kant's "Toward Perpetual Peace.” Kant posits three "definitive articles" creating perpetual peace, of which the third is this: In a cosmopolitan world where each state is a republic (the first definitive article) and the global order is a federation of free states (the second definitive article), "the rights of persons, as citizens of the world, shall be limited to the conditions of universal hospitality." Universal hospitality. What a good idea.
But what's in all this for Trump? He's hoping it will improve his re-election chances, which was also the goal in timing the Israel-UAE-Bahrain summit at the White House. (That deal also helped Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has large troubles of his own.) Now is an inopportune moment to ask whether Donald Trump might be doing the right thing for the right reason, however much it also serves his own interest. We're in a fierce election season, when complexity is unwelcome.