Israel and Sudan agreed to move to forging normal relations for the first time, Israeli officials said after the leaders of the former foes met in Uganda.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had two hours of talks with Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of Sudan’s sovereign council, in Entebbe.
“It was agreed to start co-operation leading to normalisation of the relationship between the two countries,” an Israeli statement said.
Sudan’s information minister and government spokesman, Faisal Salih, told Reuters he had no information about the visit and that cabinet had not discussed it. Officials would wait for “clarifications” on Burhan’s return, Salih said in a later statement.
Burhan is the most senior figure in the first phase of a power-sharing arrangement between military and civilian parties in Sudan following the overthrow of long-time Islamist ruler Omar al-Bashir.
Civilian authorities are due to take the lead for the final 18 months of the 39-month transition.
Normalising relations with Sudan, where Arab states gathered in 1967 to issue what became known as the “Three No’s” – no recognition of Israel, no peace with Israel and no negotiations with Israel – would allow Netanyahu to burnish diplomatic credentials before Israel’s March 2 election.
It could pave the way for the right-wing Israeli leader to pledge deportation of Sudanese who make up around 20% of illegal workers in Israel, a move backed by many of his supporters.
These migrants previously argued they could not be repatriated as they faced retribution for travelling to Israel, an enemy of Sudan.
“Netanyahu believes Sudan is moving in a new and positive direction,” the Israeli statement said.
Sudan’s leader, it added, “is interested in helping his country go through a modernisation process removing it from isolation and placing it on the world map”.
Burhan’s visit and any normalisation of ties with Israel would likely be controversial with many in Sudan and elsewhere in the Arab world, especially when is promoting a new US peace plan Palestinians flatly reject.
Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat called Burhan’s meeting with Netanyahu “a stab in the back of the Palestinian people and a flagrant walkout on the Arab peace initiative”, according to a statement published by the official WAFA news agency.
Israel previously considered Sudan a security threat because it suspected Iran used Sudan as a conduit for overland smuggling of munitions to the Gaza Strip. In 2009, regional sources said, Israeli aircraft bombed an arms convoy in Sudan.
Since Bashir was ousted Khartoum has distanced itself from Iran and no longer poses a threat, Israeli officials say.
On Sunday, the US invited Burhan to Washington, Sudan’s sovereign council said.
Sudan is pushing to be removed from a US list of countries considered state sponsors of terrorism. The listing has impeded badly needed international financial assistance and commercial activity.
Netanyahu held talks with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who said Uganda was studying the possibility of opening an embassy in Jerusalem.