With Sudan in desperate straits – a collapsing economy, hyperinflation looming and a nationwide food crisis – the administration of US President Donald Trump and the Israeli government have seen an opportunity.

The country’s democratic hopes hang by a thread 18 months after non-violent protests overthrew their long-term ruler Omar al-Bashir.

But if Sudan recognises Israel then the US will strike it off the state sponsors of terror list, opening the door to essential economic stabilisation measures.

t is a complicated story which dates back 30 years to the early days of Sudan’s Islamist government.

After seizing power in a military coup in 1989, President Bashir turned Khartoum into a global centre for militant jihadism.

Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups used Sudan as the base for carrying out terror attacks in the US, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and elsewhere.

After the first terror attack on New York’s World Trade Center in 1993, the US designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism.

CIA co-operation

International financial sanctions and military pressure from neighbouring countries which supported Sudanese rebels pushed Sudan to expel Osama bin Laden and other jihadists three years later.

Shortly after the 11 September 2001 attacks, Sudan’s security services became a valued partner with the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

On that basis, Sudan should have been removed from the state sponsors of terror list.

But members of Congress were hostile to Khartoum for a host of other reasons, including the war in Darfur and human rights abuses, and the listing stayed in place.

And the Bashir government still operated in the shadows: it kept open its links to Iran and Hamas, and on at least two occasions Israeli fighter planes attacked convoys travelling up Sudan’s Red Sea coast, allegedly taking arms to Hamas.

In 2016, under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Bashir government cut its ties with Iran.

Yet after the democratic revolution last year, Washington DC was slow to shift.

US State Department officials wanted to keep the leverage of one of their most powerful tools. And they were worried that the new democratic regime might not last long.

Senators block terror list removal

The problem was that keeping sanctions on Sudan could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, condemning the country to state failure.

As long as Sudan stays blacklisted, crippling financial sanctions stay in place. Legitimate Sudanese businesses are handicapped, foreign direct investment is shackled and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank cannot adopt a package to relieve its massive debt – $72bn (£55.6bn) and counting.

The scale of hunger today is terrifying: the UN classes 9.6 million people as “severely food insecure”.

This is made worse by the Covid-19 shutdown and floods. It is a crisis that cannot be overcome by food handouts – it needs a massive injection of economic assistance.

Over recent months, a deal to remove the terror listing was slowly making its way through Congress, held up by demands from the relatives of victims of al-Qaeda attacks in East Africa and Yemen that compensation be paid.

Sudan agreed to a package of $335m. But in September two Democratic senators – Chuck Schumer and Bob Menendez blocked the measure, partly because they wanted to keep open the prospects of the relatives of victims of 9/11 mounting a case.

The Trump administration is offering Sudan a way out.

Visiting Khartoum at the end of August, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proposed a deal to Sudan’s civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok: if Sudan recognised Israel, President Trump would circumvent the Congressional blockage.

Following the UAE’s decision last month, Sudan, a member of the Arab League, would be only the fifth Arab state to do so.

This would be a huge boost to the administration’s campaign to normalise Arab relations with Israel in the weeks before the election.

Recognising Israel would be a momentous step for Sudan – that indeed is the whole point.

Good deal for the generals

The most vociferous opponents of the move are the Islamists, now out of power. But it is controversial across the political spectrum, and the civilian coalition includes many who insist on peace with the Palestinians first.

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