The Cush Connection

By Jonathan Neumann
Monday, July 9, 2012

One year ago today, after decades of war with the hegemonic rulers of Khartoum, South Sudan declared independence.  An elated Israel officially recognized the new state the next day.  In the year since, many optimistic hopes for the Middle East and North Africa have been dashed; but in the case of South Sudan, Israel’s optimism was justified.  Three areas in particular continue to hold promise: bilateral relations, migration, and geopolitics. 

Israel’s interest in Africa is long-standing. Theodor Herzl himself aspired, upon fulfillment of his vision for the Jews, to assist the Africans in their ‘‘redemption.’’ As foreign minister in the 1950s and 1960s, Golda Meir championed the Jewish state’s role in the development of the continent’s newly decolonized states: “Like them, we had shaken off foreign rule; like them, we had to learn for ourselves how to reclaim the land, how to increase the yields of our crops, how to irrigate, how to raise poultry, how to live together, and how to defend ourselves.” Israel provided Africa with military aid; it even trained Mobutu Sese Seko, the Congolese general who became that country’s president.

Whether motivated by Jewish beliefs, socialist principles, or geopolitical ambitions, Israel nonetheless failed to secure from these states the diplomatic support in world bodies that it craved—even when it provided unconditional aid. Africans, in part persuaded by Arab portrayals of Israel as a colonizer and in part simply under pressure from the Arab League, cut ties with the Jewish state after the Yom Kippur War.  But once the Middle East peace process began to take shape in the 1980’s, and then as the Soviet Union collapsed, Israel’s ties with African states warmed again.

The establishment of South Sudan, though, offers particular opportunities for Israel. To begin with, Israel boasts a history of support for South Sudanese secession: throughout the 1960s, Israel was the primary source of moral, diplomatic, and military aid to the rebels. No surprise then, that as Juba celebrated independence as South Sudan’s new capital city, Israeli flags were ubiquitous. One of the city’s neighborhoods is called Jerusalem, and there is a Shalom Hotel near the airport.

No surprise then, either, that Israel was among the first foreign destinations on South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit’s itinerary, or that Kiir intends to locate the South Sudanese embassy in Jerusalem.  While there this past December, he announced that ‘‘Israel has always supported the South Sudanese people. Without you, we would not have arisen. You struggled alongside us in order to allow the establishment of South Sudan.’’

Israel’s role in the South Sudanese memory may have also served to attract the many migrants who made the perilous journey through Egypt over the last few years as the civil war in Sudan reached a climax. Now, upwards of several thousand South Sudanese are thought to be living in Israel (most of the rest of Israel’s estimated fifty thousand African migrants are Sudanese and Eritrean).  But, in what could provide a model of how the process of asylum should work—migrants flee war-ravaged country, war ends, migrants return—the South Sudanese government has cooperated with Israel in an effort to bring those migrants home.

Many are hoping that their return will cement a relationship which could prove highly beneficial to Israel. Israel can provide South Sudan with the same economic assistance it has always sought to provide African states, but South Sudan might be more willing to reciprocate, and is in a position to do so.  The state has access to large oil reserves and other natural resources, and, crucially, its position upriver from Egypt and Sudan along the Nile gives it helpful leverage against those countries.

With that in mind, South Sudan fits nicely into Israel’s emerging “periphery strategy,” whereby the Jewish state seeks to cultivate friendships with those states bordering the hostile Arab world. This idea is not original to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; David Ben-Gurion pursued it during his premiership as well. For him, Israel’s interest in Africa was ‘‘not a matter of philanthropy . . . We are no less in need of the fraternity of friendship of the new nations than they are of our assistance.’’ In particular, Ben-Gurion successfully sought a trilateral alliance with Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia, as well as with the Kurds and other regional minorities. In Ethiopia, Israel had a friend in Emperor Haile Selassie, who had spent time in Jerusalem during his earlier exile and was known as the ‘‘Lion of Judah.’’ Almost immediately after the establishment of the alliance, Israel helped him avert a coup.

Netanyahu’s periphery strategy is more complex, incorporating more countries and more common concerns. In addition to South Sudan, with its natural resources and strategic importance, another prospective partner is seen in Cyprus.  Earlier this year, Netanyahu became the first Israeli leader to visit the island, and Cyprus is considering an Israeli request to position aircraft there. The two countries have been brought together by mutual concern over Turkey’s recent belligerence, but they are also cooperating in the exploitation of immeasurably valuable natural gas reserves recently discovered offshore.

Those two concerns are also motivating the Israeli turn to Greece. Greece, given its close relationship with Cyprus, is naturally interested in the energy reserves, but it has also completed a mutual defense agreement with Israel, conducted joint military operations with Israel, and thwarted the Freedom Flotilla II, an attempted 2011 repeat of the 2010 maritime convoy which sought to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Energy interests and concern over Turkey have also pushed Israel and Balkan states Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia closer, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Israel should be seen in part in the same light. A recent report suggested that Israel might have looked to Azerbaijan to stage an attack on Iran. Although the claim was likely nonsense, it underscored the geographical and policy range of Israel’s successful periphery drive, which stretches from Europe through Africa and Asia to India.

All this being said, South Sudan is hardly in a position of strength. Homelessness, food shortages, and disease are rampant; internal violence and external conflict continue; mortality and illiteracy rates are among the highest in the world; corruption is endemic; and human rights abuses are frequent.  In short, the one-year-old country is well on its way to becoming a failed state.

But independence is nevertheless sweet, and, as President Kiir said in Israel:

I am very moved to come to Israel and to walk on the soil of the Promised Land. As a nation that rose from dust, and as the few who fought the many, you have established a flourishing country that offers a future and economic prosperity to its children, I have come to see your success.

One can only hope, for its own sake as well as Israel’s, that South Sudan might learn the secrets of this success.  

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