CAIRO (AP) - Israel's foreign minister held talks Thursday in Sudan with the African country's ruling generals, discussions that Sudanese military officials said were focused on reviving plans for full diplomatic ties between their states.
Sudan's ruling body, the Sovereignty Council, only said the talks aimed at establishing "fruitful relations with Israel,'' and strengthening cooperation in various sectors, including security and military.
Sudanese leaders also spoke of a need to achieve ''stability between Israel and the Palestinian people'' in light of a recent surge in violence, according to a statement from the council, which made no mention of full diplomatic relations - or opening embassies in each country.
But three military officials told The Associated Press that Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen's trip marked progress on the issue of normalization. However, they said that full normalization of ties will not be achieved anytime soon. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the talks with reporters.
In 2020, Sudan signed a normalization agreement with Israel, joining Morocco, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates as part of the U.S.-brokered "Abraham Accords" to establish full diplomatic ties.
With Sudan, however, the process stalled amid widespread popular opposition in Sudan. A military coup in October 2021 then deposed Sudan's government, upending the African country's fragile democratic transition.
Still, behind-the-scenes talks have been ongoing between Israeli and Sudanese military and intelligence officials, one of the three military officials said, without providing further details. In early 2022, Sudan's ruling general, Abdel-Fattah Burhan, publicly defended past meetings between Israeli and Sudanese officials, saying intelligence sharing helped lead to the arrests of suspected militants in Sudan.
During his visit, Cohen met with Burhan and his deputy, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who commands the Rapid Support Forces, the country's largest paramilitary group, the officials added.
There was no immediate comment from Israel. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to hint that something was in the works before flying to France earlier on Thursday. "We are continuing to expand the circle of peace," he said, noting that Chad, which borders Sudan, opened a new embassy in Israel earlier in the day.
"We will continue to expand and deepen the circle of peace with additional countries, both near and far," added Netanyahu, who returned to office in December. During his previous 12-year term as premier, his government made it a priority to forge ties with formerly hostile countries in Africa and the Arab world.
A new breakthrough with Sudan could help Netanyahu deflect attention from a recent burst of violence with Palestinians and widespread public anger over his plans to overhaul the country's judicial system - which critics say will badly damage Israel's democratic system of checks and balances.
Cohen, who previously visited Sudan in 2021, was expected to speak later Thursday on arrival back in Israel.
Although Sudan does not have the influence or wealth of Gulf Arab countries, a deal with the African country - even as it is mired in a deep political and economic crisis - would be deeply significant for Israel.
Sudan was once one of Israel's fiercest critics in the Arab world and in 1993, the U.S. designated it a state sponsor of terrorism. The Trump administration removed Sudan from that list in 2020, a move meant to help the country revive its battered economy and end its pariah status, and an incentive to normalize relations with Israel.
Associated Press writer Jack Jeffery in Cairo contributed to this report.