JERUSALEM—The shifting alliances that define the current turmoil in the Middle East briefly left Israel this week confronting a player it would never have imagined partnering with—Sudan.
Reports reached Jerusalem via the Sudan News Agency that the possibility of normalized relations with the Jewish state was raised at a high-level conference in Khartoum by Sudan’s foreign minister, Ibrahim Ghandour, and other dignitaries.
"The matter of normalized relations with Israel is something that can be looked into," said Ghandour.
The occasion was a policy forum initiated by President Omar al-Bashir aimed at drawing together several opposition political parties and armed groups. The National Dialogue Conference was aimed at mapping out a future for the war-torn and economically troubled state.
Foreign policy was one of the subjects discussed, including relations with Washington. It was in this context that several speakers suggested that ties with Israel would open doors for Sudan in the United States. According to the Sudanese media report, several dozen participants supported ties with Israel "under certain conditions." One forum member, Ibrahim Silman, said, "the Arab League supports this approach."
Israel has diplomatic relations with Egypt and Jordan and informal relations with several other Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf. Relations with Sudan, however, would be more awkward for Israel, which has bombed it several times in recent years in interdicting arms shipments from Iran to the Gaza Strip via Sudan.
Sudan’s foreign policy, which had been closely linked to Iran, took a sharp turn in the past year. Khartoum closed Iranian centers in Sudan and expelled the Iranian cultural attaché on the grounds that he was spreading Shi’ism in a Sunni country. Turning to Saudi Arabia, Khartoum joined it in battling the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. When Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran this month, Sudan was one of the Sunni states that followed suit. Riyadh has reportedly channeled billions of dollars to Khartoum to help its economy.
At the Khartoum forum, the head of the Sudanese Independent Party said "there is no justification for Sudan having hostile relations with Israel because it will pay a political and economic price for it." He was referring to efforts to get Washington to lift sanctions it imposed on Sudan two decades ago for supporting terrorism.
Following protests by Sudanese Islamists and others, the government issued a statement Thursday saying that the foreign minister’s statement about Israel had been "taken out of context."
"The support of the government and people of Sudan for the Palestinian cause is well known," it said. "It did not change and will remain unchanged."