Bribes, Bombs and Saudi Billionaires: The Secret History of Israel’s Explosive Relations With Sudan

The meeting Monday in Uganda between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of Sudan’s transitional Sovereignty Council, is just another chapter in the convoluted history of the two countries. It is a story of ups and downs, war, expedience, animosity, gun-running and people-smuggling, conspiracies, the long reach of Iran, clandestine bank transfers and – above all – a relationship wrapped in overlapping layers of secrecy.

The opening chapter in that history was written in the first half of the 1950’s. Sudan was negotiating its independence from the joint British and Egyptian government, known as the "condominium," which had ruled since 1899.

Sudan’s major opposition, the Umma party, feared that Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser, keep to concretize his ideology of pan-Arabism ideology, and his ambitions for leadership of Africa and the Arab world, would try to bloc Sudan’s independence, in coordination with those Sudanese nationalists who favored unification with Egypt. 

– Wasil Ali tweet 1

Little known fact but the Umma party were the first in Sudan to reachout to Israel in the 50's seeking their help with the US to support Sudan independence.

On the right al-Sideeg al-Mahdi (father of former PM & leader of Umma party al-Sadiq al-Mahdi).

— Wasil Ali – واصل علي(@wasilalitaha) February 3, 2020

Umma’s representatives, led by Sadiq al-Mahdi – who, 30 years later would become Sudan’s prime minister – met secretly in London with Israeli diplomats, among them Mordechai Gazit, then the first secretary of the London embassy. The Sudanese emissaries sought the diplomatic and, if possible, economic assistance of Israel, a sworn enemy of Egypt.

– Gidron tweet

And this is from 1956: the Israeli embassy in London reports on its links with members of the Sudanese Umma Party, and on Israel's plan to invite them to Israel and extend financial support to the party in order to stop Sudan from joining the Arab League.

— Yotam Gidron (@GidronYotam) February 4, 2020

In January 1956, Sudan gained its independence and was recognized by both the UK and Egypt. The task of maintaining the clandestine encounters with Israel, which continued for a few years, was transferred from Israel’s Foreign Ministry to the Mossad. 

From the beginning, Sudanese-born Nissim Gaon, an Israeli-Swiss international businessman, played an important role in facilitating relations between Israel and Sudan, with an emphasis on economic ties. Over the years Israel benefited from Gaon’s investments and experience in the tourism and hotel industries.

The honeymoon in the relations between the two countries was cut short at the end of the 1950’s. A military coup d’état – one of several to come – and Nasser’s beguiling spell turned Sudan into Israel’s adversary. Sudan even sent a small military contingent to assist Egypt in the Six Day War of June 1967, and for the next decade there were no bilateral encounters, not even clandestine ones.