Israel hopes to attain a new African ally in S. Sudan

With world's newest country poised to gain independence, oil-rich region has signaled it would forge ties with Jerusalem.

South Sudan Independence Referendum (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
South Sudan Independence Referendum
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Officials and analysts in Israel are beginning to weigh the ramifications of secession by Southern Sudan after Monday’s final tally from the recent Sudanese referendum showed that 98 percent of the voters favored a split with the North, which has been accused of decades of systematic discrimination against the South.
Dr. Irit Back, an East Africa expert at Tel Aviv University and the Open University, said the odds of the nascent state establishing ties with Israel were “very good.”
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Southern Sudan, she said, could serve Israel as a non-Arab ally on the margins of the Middle East, in a kind of return to David Ben-Gurion’s “periphery doctrine” of cultivating ties with non-Arab states like Turkey and the Shah’s Iran.
In October, Southern Sudanese information minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said an independent South would “establish relations with all the countries of the world and will not be an enemy to anyone.
There are diplomatic relations between some Arab states and Israel, so why not us?” The same month, Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit said in a statement that Israel “is the enemy of the Palestinians only, and not an enemy of the South.”
In December, however, the pan- Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Kiir had backtracked on his earlier statement.
In a closed-door meeting with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, Kiir was said to have denied that his administration had any existing ties with Israel, and said his government “understands the sensitivity towards the issue” among Arab states. He was responding to allegations made in 2009 by the Arab League’s envoy to Khartoum that Israel, as well as pro-Israel lobbyists in the US, were intervening in Sudanese affairs to help the South secede.
Since its incorporation as a British colony in the late 19th century, Sudan has been drawn along ethnic, linguistic and religious lines. The North is largely Nubian Arab and Muslim, while black African Christians and animists predominate in the South.
Those divisions formed the backdrop of two long civil wars, first from 1955 to 1972, and then from 1983 to 2005. Taken together, the two conflicts account for the longest civil war in Africa’s history and one of its bloodiest, with 2 million people killed and 4 million displaced.
The recent referendum on secession had been agreed upon as part of a 2005 peace agreement ending the second chapter of the conflict.
Israel and South Sudanese rebels enjoyed a short period of cooperation in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1967, after insurgents offered help in keeping the Sudanese army out of the Six Day War, they were rewarded with Arab weapons seized in that conflict by Israel for their own campaign against the central government in Khartoum.
One major question mark now is the fate of thousands of Sudanese migrants now in Israel. A report released last month by the Population and Immigration Authority found that nearly a quarter of the estimated 33,000 illegal migrants in the country are from Sudan, the vast majority of them from the South.
Experts have warned, however, that Israel must be careful not to send the migrants home before the South is assured of at least a modicum of stability.
After Sudan signaled it would accept the referendum results, the US said Monday it would recognize Southern Sudan, as well as review its 1993 designation of the Khartoum government as a state sponsor of terrorism.
“I congratulate the people of Southern Sudan for a successful and inspiring referendum in which an overwhelming majority of voters chose independence,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “I am therefore pleased to announce the intention of the United States to formally recognize Southern Sudan as a sovereign, independent state in July 2011.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged both the leaders of both the North and South to continue to work together toward full implementation of the peace agreement and post-referendum arrangements.
Echoing Washington’s formula for Middle East peace, Clinton called on them to become two “viable states living alongside each other in peace.”
Sudanese President Omar al- Bashir, facing an International Criminal Court-issued arrest warrant for war crimes in Darfur, is considered unlikely to employ force to thwart secession. On Monday he said he would be the first to congratulate the South on its new state.

AP contributed to this report.