The world’s newest member in the community of nations got plenty of press coverage when it formally declared independence in July. But one aspect of South Sudan’s emergence went largely unnoticed: the establishment of official diplomatic relations with Israel. Far from a routine gesture, the mutual declaration of recognition between the two states could prove to be a significant boost to Israel’s strategic position, not to mention the positives that may come as South Sudan attempts to get its new state on a strong footing.
The leaders of South Sudan, a country with a feeble national infrastructure and a near-nonexistent formal economy after two decades of conflict with the north, will much appreciate the economic aid and leverage that comes with a new diplomatic relationship. But it is actually Israel that has the most to gain.
Israel’s diplomatic outreach extends a measure of goodwill to the people of South Sudan – who need all the help they can get as their country begins the long process of setting up embassies, forming an independent foreign policy, and building up their agricultural potential. But the new partnership with the South Sudanese Government also provides Israel with an opportunity to create a foothold in a region that is known to export some its instability into the Middle East.
At the same time that the Israeli people continue to raise questions over the rising costs of housing, food, and fuel, the diplomatic relationship with South Sudan has the potential to alleviate some of those problems – that is, if the Israeli government is serious about working with a country projected by some to be Africa’s biggest food producer. And while South Sudan certainly has years to go before its economy breaks free from the shackles of oil dependency, the technical expertise that Israel brings into the new relationship at least has a potential to make that transition a little easier.
Economics are not the only benefit for Israel. This new relationship could prove a huge boost to Israel’s global standing – and its strategy of Iranian deterrence as well. Over the past several years, Iran – Israel’s archenemy in the region – has been accelerating its own diplomatic push on the African continent in an attempt to compensate for its loss of markets in the west.
A concerted campaign by Israel to sponsor development projects in South Sudan, involve itself in promoting the country’s untapped natural resources, and build people-to-people contacts that are genuine and long-lasting would take a significant potential market and relationship from Iran as it tries to survive economic sanctions on its nuclear program.
In addition to using its hard power to slow down Tehran’s pursuit of an indigenous nuclear program, the Israelis will find it worthwhile to exploit soft power as well. Putting a good face on the African continent is one aspect of that soft power approach.
Partnering up with South Sudan also enables Israel – and by extension, the United States – to increase pressure on neighboring Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, whose government has capitalized on terrorism in the past. While Sudan has drastically reduced its support for terrorist attacks in the region after the September 11 attacks, Mr. Bashir’s country continues to serve as a place of convenience for those who would be more than happy to strike western targets. (Osama bin Laden resided in Sudan before traveling to Afghanistan in 2001.)
Elements of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, two groups that have launched attacks against Israelis this year, are also known to operate in Sudan, with or without the permission of Sudanese authorities.
Indeed, whether the Sudanese are complicit in the arrangement is not necessarily the most frightening aspect of this situation for the Israelis. The major concern is that armed groups are operating on Sudanese territory with relative impunity, ensuring that their fighters are well rested and their organization is at least healthy enough to survive another day.
What has been most worrisome to Israelis over the past few years are intelligence reports alleging that armed Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip have used Sudan as a transit point for smuggling weapons into the coastal territory. Israeli and US intelligence has indicated that Sudan serves as a layover for Iranian weapons destined for fighters in Gaza, an arrangement that Israel has tried to counter by bombing suspected weapons convoy sites on Sudanese territory.
Sudan losing a third of its territory to the South Sudanese will undeniably throw a wrench into the inner workings of these fundraising and arms procurement efforts. This disruption will continue, of course, only if South Sudan quickly undertakes the hard work of converting a guerrilla force into a coherent and law-abiding army – one that follows international human rights law, the laws of war, and is held accountable by the senior military and civilian leadership when the rules are violated.
None of this will come shortly or out of thin air. But having established diplomatic ties with dozens of countries around the world – including with an Israeli state that prides itself on its military record – South Sudan is not alone in the journey.
South Sudan may have been admitted to the United Nations as a full member state, but the work of building a stable nation has only just begun. Multiple challenges remain for the young country, ranging from meeting food security needs to ensuring that their soldiers can refrain from contributing to yet another conflict with the Sudanese Government on the contentious border. Israel can help with this transition, picking up a new ally at a time when it faces a significant bout of diplomatic turbulence.
Daniel R. DePetris studies security issues and Middle Eastern affairs at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, where he is an associate editor of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis. He has contributed to the Diplomat, Small Wars Journal, and Foreign Policy in Focus.