South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, wearing his signature black cowboy hat, rode
into Israel this week as head of the world’s newest country for a visit clearly
signaling a growing Jerusalem-Juba alliance.
Though blessed with massive
oil deposits and largely untapped natural wealth, South Sudan is a dirt-poor
nation of eight million people in eastern Africa entangled with its stronger
neighbor to the north in a border dispute that seems on the brink of spilling
over into an all-out war.
On the surface, this would not necessarily seem
to be the most valuable country for Israel to befriend. South Sudan, which is
predominantly Christian, seceded from its Muslim neighbor to the north in July
after decades of civil war that began in 1955. Israel recognized South Sudan
within hours of its independence declaration.
In an indication of just
how important Israel views its relationship with the fledgling country, Kiir –
who was accompanied on his first trip here as president by his defense and
foreign ministers – met and was greeted warmly by Israel’s top leaders:
President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud
Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Peres alluded to the help
Israel gave south Sudanese rebels in the late 1960s, reminding Kiir that as
deputydefense minister he had met in Paris, alongside then-prime minister Levi
Eshkol, with local leaders from southern Sudan.
"We provided them with
extensive assistance in agriculture and infrastructures,” Peres said. That was
According to Jimmy Mulla, an advocate for South Sudan
living in Washington, Israel at the time also provided invaluable training to
the rebels. “Israel helped the [rebel] movement, giving them instruction,” he
said in a telephone interview.
PaanLuel Wel, a prolific South Sudanese
blogger also based in Washington, wrote in July that the friendship of the South
Sudanese to Israel, besides being based in the country’s deep Christian
religious roots, can be traced back to the beginning of the south’s
“For many years during that first south Sudanese struggle of
1955- 1972, the Jewish state of Israel was the main moral supporter of the
Southern rebels and the chief supplier of physical materials such as arms and
international maneuvering,” he wrote.
Consequently, it didn’t come as a
big surprise when the head of the rebel movement, General Joseph Lagu, was among
the first world leaders to send a letter of congratulations to Eshkol after the
Six Day War.
To the Southern rebels led by Lagu, Wel wrote, Israel was
fighting the very enemy that was discriminating against and oppressing
Wel’s words help to explain what Peres meant when he told Kiir
during their meeting that this was a “moving and historic moment” for him and
“Israel has supported and will continue to support your
country in all areas in order to strengthen and develop it,” he said. “We know
that you courageously and wisely struggled against all odds to establish your
country and for us, the birth of South Sudan is a milestone in the history of
the Middle East.” According to a statement put out by Peres’s office about the
meeting between the two men, Kiir said he was moved to be in Israel and “walk on
the soil of the Promised Land, and with me are all South Sudanese
“Israel has always supported the South Sudanese people,” he
“Without you, we would not have arisen. You struggled alongside us
in order to allow the establishment of South Sudan and we are interested in
learning from your experience. 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
Despite those very warm words, diplomatic officials in
Jerusalem said that this week’s Israeli bear hug, or at least the fact that the
hug was made public, somewhat embarrassed Kiir, who was hoping for a more
low-profile, under-the-radar visit. This desire for a low-key visit was not
because he or his people are not extremely pro-Israel. Indeed, one of the more
memorable images of 2011, at least from an Israeli perspective, was the
publication of pictures in July of South Sudanese celebrating their independence
by waving Israeli flags.
Rather, Kiir – who does want a strong
relationship with Jerusalem – preferred to keep the visit low-key because he
realizes that with his country taking its first baby steps, it must be concerned
about how visible ties with Israel will be interpreted by his powerful neighbors
to the north: Sudan and Egypt.
And he does indeed have something to be
Two days after his visit, The Sudan Tribune – a news
website dealing with Sudanese and African affairs – reported that Sudan was
alarmed by Kiir’s trip to Israel. According to the website, which ran a photo of
Kiir laying a wreath at Yad Vashem, the official spokesman of Sudan’s foreign
ministry, Al-Obaid Marawih, told reporters in Khartoum that the government was
concerned and was studying the visit to “ascertain its possible
Regarding Egypt, one diplomatic official in Jerusalem
said that Israel’s ties with South Sudan “drive the Egyptians nuts,” because of
an almost conspiratorial fear they have that Israel will gain leverage over
Cairo by somehow diverting the flow of the White Nile tributary, which flows
through South Sudan.
This same concern about the Nile was also voiced by
the Egyptians when Israel and Ethiopia forged ties in the 1990s. In an
indication of how real this fear of nefarious Israeli designs on the Nile is in
the Arab world, the topic was a component of a news program piece on Al Jazeera
in English this week about the burgeoning Israeli-South Sudanese
Ask Israeli diplomatic officials what interests Israel has in South
Sudan and they will say – if they are willing to talk at all – that Jerusalem is
keen on helping the fledgling nation develop and can offer all kinds of
assistance in the spheres of technology, infrastructure development,
construction and agricultural and water management.
Indeed, the only
thing the Prime Minister’s Office was willing to say about Kiir’s visit was that
a team of experts will be dispatched to South Sudan shortly to determine that
country’s needs and how Israel can help.
Israeli officials don’t talk,
and nobody will talk, about security cooperation, which is obviously something
that the South Sudanese – already involved in skirmishes with Sudan – have in
For Israel, South Sudan is extremely important
It is a friendly country in the heart of a region that
Iran is trying to penetrate. Israel is concerned about a flow of arms going from
Iran, through Sudan, into Egypt, Sinai and then Gaza.
reports said that Israel was behind a couple of mysterious raids on arms convoys
in Sudan over the past three years.
In addition, South Sudan is part of a
cluster of countries in eastern Africa, including Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda,
that Israel is trying to cultivate in a manner not seen for years. Each of these
countries is facing threats from Islamic radicals, giving them an interest in
closer cooperation with Israel.
The leaders of Uganda and Kenya were both
in Israel last month and Netanyahu is planning the first extended visit by an
Israeli prime minister to sub-Saharan Africa since 1966 with a trip to Kenya,
Uganda and Ethiopia tentatively planned for February.
(Yitzhak Rabin made
a stopover of a few hours in Kenya in 1993 on the way back from a Far East trip,
but that was anything but the full blown state visit Netanyahu has in mind.)
South Sudan, for its part, is obviously interested in military relationship, as
attested by the visit of the country’s defense minister along with Kiir, but
also for Israeli civilian technology and know-how.
As blogger Wel puts
it, South Sudan stands to reap many benefits from a close relationship with
Israel. “Israel is among the most economically advanced OECD member states,” he
writes. “With our own naturally endowed abundance of resources, befriending such
a country will open many doors of opportunities for the mining and exploitation
of our own resources.”
Wel contrasts Israel to China and the West, saying
it has no history of neo-colonialism in Africa.
Furthermore, Israel, he
writes, can help develop the country’s education systems that, due to oppressive
polices from successive governments in Khartoum and the long civil war, is in “a
pathetic condition crying out for refurbishment.”
“What is needed is a
technologically based system of education, one that befits the 21st century we
are in,” he writes. “The state of Israel has it and, as our long-time friend, it
is willing to help us get on our own feet, after decades of painfully crawling
on the rough edges of illiteracy, poverty, desolation, and disillusionment.”