Michael Hilkowitz

6,285 points to consider when discussing an Israeli-Sudanese peace

The new diplomacy may push Israel to take action on the local asylum seekers from Sudan; or Bibi could buy time by granting them 5 years of temporary residence
African migrants take part at a protest in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90 /File)
African migrants take part at a protest in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90 /File)

As I read the headlines on Friday and saw the announcement of peace between Israel and Sudan, I felt wonderful. What we are seeing, first with the UAE, then Bahrain, and now Sudan, is the crumbling of the wall that holds Israel apart from the Arab and Muslim world, apart from its neighbors in the Middle East and North Africa. That wall was put up by the Arab League in Khartoum, Sudan in 1967 with its “3 Nos” declaration. The Khartoum Resolution would be the guiding star for most of the Arab and Muslim world since, a simple mantra, “No Peace, No Recognition, No Negotiation.” Yet here we are, talking about an Israeli embassy in Khartoum.

But as we celebrate another country making peace with Israel, there are those in Israel for whom this brings more unknown, more worry, and more concern. A group of people who know all too well the power of “Nos.” Right now, there are 6,285 Sudanese people living in Israel. Many have been waiting more than a decade for Israel to rule on their asylum requests. They ask if there has been any decision and all they hear is “No.” They ask if there are any developments and all they hear is “No.” They ask for rights and protections under the law and all they hear is “No.” Just as the Khartoum Resolution established the Arab World’s “3 Nos,” these Sudanese asylum seekers are all too familiar with Israel’s “Nos” as well.

These are people who fled war, starvation, and genocide in Sudan. We hear about Darfur, we know about Darfur, Israel was the first country in the world to recognize what was happening there as a genocide. But Darfur is not the only place in Sudan where people have fled from. In Israel, we also have people who have fled the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions of Sudan. None of them, not from Nuba Mountains, not from Blue Nile and not from Darfur, is given a decision on his or her asylum requests. These are men and women who have been living here in Israel for years, many since 2003. For all of this time, they have been living without status or legal protections, slipping through the cracks of the Israeli social safety net. This has become so much more relevant with the outbreak of COVID-19. The asylum seeker community has been extremely hard hit by the economic fallout from the virus and they are not eligible for the social safety net protections that Israeli citizens and foreign workers have.

Much has changed in Sudan in the last year. That is what opened the door to this possible peace in the first place. From 1989 to April of 2019, Omar al-Bashir held power with an iron grip. A dictator who took control of Sudan in a military coup, Bashir quickly consolidated his power and turned Sudan into a one-party country, dealing harshly with any dissent. In time, Bashir’s government would invite Egyptian Islamic Jihad as well as Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda to base themselves in Sudan. This led to Sudan being put on the US List of State Sponsors of Terrorism. In 2003, an uprising began in Darfur in response to government oppression against non-Arab Sudanese citizens. The government reaction to that uprising, as we know, was genocide. In May of 2011, another conflict started, intertwined with the conflict in Darfur, an uprising began in the Blue Nile region. This conflict led to the separation of South Sudan and a decade of war. Then in April of 2019, a wave of popular protests supported by the military, finally removed Omar al-Bashir from power. After a transitional government was installed, a new government was established under Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

This leaves the question, how does this possible peace change, or not, the situation for Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel? One of the reasons the government felt so comfortable not ruling on the cases of Sudanese asylum seekers was that as long as there were no formal relations between Israel and Sudan, even if it wanted to, the Israel government could not deport these people back to Sudan, and the Supreme Court set a pretty high bar for them to be deported to a third country. If it was virtually impossible to deport them anyway, why risk giving them a status it might be hard to remove in the future, went the thinking of the Israeli government. But if Israel and Sudan do sign a formal peace treaty, as is expected, Israel could possibly deport the asylum seekers back to Sudan, but not without making a ruling on their asylum cases first. While Israel might gain the diplomatic ability to deport the Sudanese asylum seekers, it does not gain the ability to do it without rendering decisions on their asylum requests per international and Israeli law.

This represents a fairly significant potential change in the situation of the Sudanese asylum seekers…maybe. There are two questions that come into play here. The first question is, how would a fair refugee status determination hearing be decided in these cases? The judges would need to determine whether the people seeking asylum have a reasonable fear if returned to Sudan. As was discussed earlier, much has changed in Sudan in the last year. Though it has only been a year, Sudan has made some good movement, but the government violence has continued. There have been several massacres attributed to government forces and even two years after peace with South Sudan, fighting continues both in the Blue Nile region and in Darfur. It is hard to see how a fair asylum judge could reject asylum for these people. Indeed, in most of the rest of the world, Sudanese asylum seekers are accepted as refugees at an 85 percent rate.

The second question is political. There are a few political issues that make it unlikely Israel would deport these asylum seekers anytime soon. One is that the three biggest proponents of deporting asylum seekers, Ayelet Shaked, Naftali Bennett, and Avigdor Liberman, are all sitting in the opposition. It is hard to see Bibi giving those three a win on an issue that is important to them. Another issue is the current makeup of the coalition. It is not clear whether Blue and White and Labor would support deportations at this time, or at all. Just as Bibi does not want to give Bennett et al, a win by deporting these asylum seekers, Gantz does not want to give Bibi a win even if he agrees on the issue of deportations. A third issue is actually getting it on the government’s agenda with everything else going on from COVID-19 to Bibi’s trial, to the constant coalition fights, to the budget, this is an issue no one in the government wants to put any time, effort, or political capital into at the moment. There are just too many bigger issues at hand right now.

Barring other factors, this would be a perfect situation for Bibi to deploy his favorite and most trusted political strategy, maintain the status quo. With nothing pushing him to deal with the issue of Sudanese asylum seekers he would gladly, and has gladly, not gotten anywhere near this issue since his abrupt about face in 2018, when he rejected a UN resettlement plan after having negotiated it and agreeing to it. If there were no other factors, he could continue to hold these asylum seekers in limbo, not ruling on their asylum requests so that they are not given status, but also aren’t deported. Continuing to hold them in the situation they have been held in for the last decade or more. This is the kind of situation Bibi loves.

But unfortunately for Bibi, there is one other factor at play, and it is happening in the Supreme Court. At the end of September, the Court had a hearing on two cases currently before it regarding Sudanese asylum seekers. The first is asking the Court to require the government to make decisions on all the asylum requests pending, and the second is asking the government to give the Sudanese asylum seekers temporary residency, which would allow them to live with status and work with full benefits and protections like other foreign workers in Israel. During this hearing, the Court gave the government a three-month extension after hearing classified information about the on-going negotiations between Israel and Sudan. While this delayed forcing the government’s hand, it has not delayed it for long. At the end of December, the extension will expire, and the Court will move on to adjudicating the questions in those lawsuits. Then what? Israel will most likely be forced to give these asylum seekers refugee status, or they will have to give them residency, or the government will have to show how the asylum seekers can be reasonably, and legally deported (which they can’t.)

Since Bibi is going to be forced from his status quo strategy, what should he do? He should pre-empt the Court’s decision and give the Sudanese asylum seekers a five-year temporary residency. This would give the world time to see if the new Sudanese government is any different than the old Sudanese government, as well as giving Bibi time to solidify his rule, or not. It would give Israel time to get past COVID-19 and the current political morass. This is a reasonable, rational, and humane idea that could be supported by all parties in the coalition with hardly any arm twisting necessary. Blue and White with its desire to protect the Rule of Law could support a policy like this as a protection of the Court’s power. As for UJT and Shas, it will be easy enough for them to find justification in the Torah to support this move. This has never been a big issue for them anyway. The only real hard ideological opposition to this idea would come from the right wing in Yamina and Yisrael Beytenu for giving in, and the only left wing from Meretz for not going far enough, and with all of them in the opposition, the only possible grumbles inside the coalition would be from Bibi’s own Likud, and he should be able to silence them pretty easily.

This is something Bibi should do right away. There is no reason to wait. Let’s let these people have some freedom from worrying about where they will live next week, and some dignity in being able to work and live with status and security. With the number of huge news stories taking place right now from the American election, to COVID-19, from peace with the Arab world to the international campaign to defeat Hezbollah, if Bibi dropped this small story into the over-saturated news cycle, it would be gone by the next week, barely noticed. It would also take an issue away from Bibi’s political opponents on the right, while earning him some good will with international NGOs for something he was probably going to be forced to do by the Court anyway. There is no reason not to do it and many reasons to do it. Bibi, do it now, do it today.

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” [19:33-34]

About the Author
Michael Hilkowitz holds degrees in History and Secondary Education from Temple University and is a graduate of the Philadelphia High School for International Affairs. He is currently a Masters student in Security and Diplomacy Studies at Tel Aviv University. Living in Israel since 2012, he formerly served as the Chief Content Office for The Israel Innovation Fund, a 501.c.3 working to promote Israeli culture, art, and humanities innovation abroad.
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