October 2020 Press: Normalization Coverage Edition
November 19, 2020
blog Series: 

The normalization trend continued in October, as the Republic of Sudan followed the lead of the UAE and Bahrain, becoming the latest Arab state to begin establishing full diplomatic ties with the State of Israel.

Sudan, currently ruled by a civilian-military government following the popular uprising that ousted longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir last year, made the normalization deal with the Trump administration in exchange for being removed from the US State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. The deal also included a $335 million payment made by Sudan to the families of the victims of the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The attacks were carried out by affiliates of the al-Qaeda terrorist group that were at one point harbored in Bashir’s Sudan. While the civilian component of Sudan’s government is not interested in normalization, the UAE and Saudi-backed generals (all of whom were part of the genocidal Bashir regime) pushed ahead with negotiating the deal.

Sudan’s regime began normalization with Israel hoping that better economic relations with the West would help replenish the country’s dire scarcities of food, fuel and medicine. However, the mainstream American press is pushing a different narrative. According to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, Sudan’s decision to normalize ties with Israel is best understood as a natural and expected outcome of Sudan’s supposed transition from dictatorship to “democracy.” This narrative is completely out of touch with reality. Sudan’s military authority is generally rejected by the Sudanese protest movement, and “democratization” efforts are widely seen as hollow attempts by entrenched generals to retain as much power as possible. But what is actually happening in Sudan is not of concern to the mainstream press, so long as the country’s rulers take a pro-Israel stance.

  1. The New York Times, “Trump Announces Sudan Will Move to Normalize Relations with Israel,” Lara Jakes, Declan Walsh and Adam Rasgon, October 23, 2020.


On the day that Sudan’s deal with Israel was announced, the Times acknowledged that Sudan’s “recognition of Israel could trigger potentially destabilizing street protests that would weaken the government.” Yet the article went on to speculate—absent any evidence—that these protests would possibly be “led by the Islamists.” The Times neglected to mention that normalization is overwhelmingly opposed by all segments of the Sudanese population: the Arab Opinion Index of 2019-2020 revealed that 79% of Sudanese citizens opposed diplomatic recognition of Israel by their government. The idea that only “Islamists” would be bothered enough by normalization to protest is as distorted as the idea that Sudan is currently undergoing a “transition to democracy,” to use the Times’s phrasing.

Just two days before this article was published, Sudanese security forces fired live ammunition on anti-government protestors, killing a 14-year-old resident of Khartoum’s Soba East district. This went unreported by the Times. Now that Sudan appears to be transitioning from an anti-US and anti-Israel authoritarian regime to a pro-US and pro-Israel authoritarian regime, the government should have no problem receiving glowing coverage in America’s paper of record.


  1. The Wall Street Journal­, “Trump’s Accomplishment in Africa,” Editorial Board, Oct 21, 2020.


According to the Journal, the normalization agreement with Israel could turn Sudan from a “regional menace into a responsible partner.” While acknowledging that Sudan is not a democracy, the Journal joined the Times in uncritically reporting that democracy will soon arrive—for no reason other than the government has said it will. Using patronizing and Orientalist language, the Journal’s Editorial board went on to claim that Sudan’s “behavior has improved” in the post-Bashir era and that Prime Minister Hamdok is a “competent reformer” who has shown the ability to “improve a tough neighborhood.”

The Journal’s approach to Middle East coverage mirrors that of the New York Times, albeit with the use of even more transparent rhetoric. Arab countries that embrace the US and Israel are mature, realistic, and demonstrate awareness of the necessity of joining the modern liberal world order. Meanwhile, Arab countries that continue to oppose Israel and/or refuse to fully integrate their economies with the US and the West are childlike, silly, and unworthy of being analyzed objectively. The countless human rights abuses committed by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Sudan, and other countries that fall under this first category of nations is irrelevant to the Times and the Journal.


  1. The New York Times, “Bright Lights of Dubai Beckon Israel’s Arabs but Pose a Quandary,” David Halbfinger and Adam Rasgon, October 4, 2020.


As the ink dried on the UAE’s September 15 normalization agreement with Israel, the New York Times got right to work at portraying one of the Gulf’s most repressive monarchies as a Silicon Valley-style center of innovation and entrepreneurship that will provide unparalleled job opportunities—especially in tech and finance—for the roughly 1.8 million Palestinians that hold Israeli citizenship (or “Arab citizens of Israel” as the Times prefers to call them in an attempt to downplay their Palestinian identity).

Although there is much to deconstruct in this article, two major themes stand out. First, like every other “peace deal” since the Oslo Accords, Palestinians—whether refugees or holders of Israeli citizenship—are viewed purely as economic subjects who will chase after any concession granted to them. The article serves as a perfect encapsulation as to why every offer made to the Palestinians since Oslo has been roundly rejected: while a select few from the privileged class will gladly give up their political rights for economic betterment, the vast majority—consistently ignored by Western media—will still prioritize justice and national rights over material benefit, and will continue to fight for the return of stolen property.  

Second, what is apparently not worth mentioning in the Times is the fact that the UAE—a country where around 90% of the workforce are migrants—is widely considered by human rights organizations to be a gross violator of migrant workers’ rights. The UAE implements the kafala (or, “visa-sponsorship”) system, where workers are tied to their employers and routinely face a range of abuses: from unpaid wages, arbitrary imprisonment and deportation, physical and sexual assault by employers, and workdays of up to 21 hours.  


  1. The Washington Post, “What Do Ordinary Arabs Think About Normalizing Relations with Israel?” Dana El Kurd, October 26, 2020.


The lone bright spot of normalization analysis in the American mainstream media in October came courtesy of Dana El Kurd in the Washington Post. El Kurd, a researcher with the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) and the author of a new book on the Palestinian Authority, poses a simple question that the Times and the Journal dare not ask: what do the citizens of Arab countries normalizing with Israel actually think about their governments’ efforts? Detailing the findings of ACRPS’s Arab Opinion Index of 2019-2020 (mentioned above), El Kurd demonstrates the overwhelming opposition to diplomatic recognition of Israel, while also presenting additional evidence of the repressive measures taken by regimes to silence dissent in response to normalization. “Emirati phone numbers, for instance, received government WhatsApp messages before the announcement, a warning that opposing “official policy” was not permitted,” El Kurd writes. “Public officials on social media also encouraged residents and citizens to report any dissent as anti-Semitism, through a designated app.”

El Kurd’s findings illustrate that, firstly, Arab normalization with Israel is inherently undemocratic, as it is typically opposed by 9 out of 10 citizens of any particular Arab country, and secondly, multiple regimes are ready to hop on board with labeling any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, so long as it results in more weapons contracts with the US and Israel.

About The Author: 

Eli Powelson is an American historian based in Beirut and Los Angeles. He holds a BA in History from San Francisco State University, an MA in Arab and Middle Eastern History from the American University of Beirut, and will soon begin a PhD program in Middle East History. His research has focused on Palestine in the early British Mandate era with a special concentration on media analysis.

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