The Odd Couple
“I can’t tell you where they got them,” remarks Simon Deng, a South Sudanese activist, “but immediately after it was announced that Israel had recognized South Sudan, the streets of Juba were full of people waving small Israeli flags.”
Two years later, Juba, the capital of the newly-independent South Sudan, presents a remarkably pro-Israel scene: there is a neighborhood named Chai Jerusalem, the Shalom Hotel, and cars boasting three flags — those of South Sudan, the United States, and Israel.
The world’s youngest nation, South Sudan officially declared its independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011, following a referendum which garnered approval from 99 percent of voters. Fewer than 24 hours elapsed before Israel recognized the new nation. Within a month, the two countries established full diplomatic relations. During an official state visit to Israel the following December, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit met Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Kiir’s strongest gesture came in the form of his announcement that South Sudan would build an embassy in the contested streets of Jerusalem, a city claimed by many cultures and religions as a holy site. In an effort to avoid controversy, nearly every nation with a foothold in Israel — including the U.S. — has deliberately placed its embassy in Tel Aviv.
“In the long term, Southern Sudan is going to be the biggest, strongest ally to Israel in the continent of Africa,” predicts Deng. “What Southern Sudan will give to Israel will depend on what the Southern Sudanese have, and [it will] depend on what Israel needs from Southern Sudan. On the South Sudanese part, the relationship is unshakable. It is relationship a between two friends.”
While this friendship has only recently entered the public spotlight, it stems from political roots first cultivated some fifty years ago. By aiding the Southern Sudanese people, Israel has earned itself a strategically-located partner, which one day could offer substantial economic returns.
The two countries’ relationship is now public, but it is hardly new. Israel has quietly aided the predominantly Christian and animist southern Sudanese rebels in their fight against the Islamic north since the late 1960s. Israel has no diplomatic relations with North Sudan, which forbids its citizens from visiting Israel. While neither Israel nor South Sudan has officially acknowledged any weapon transfers, it is widely accepted that Israel provided critical aid to the southern rebels during Sudan’s two civil wars, which raged from 1955-1972 and 1983-2005.
Impressed by Israel’s successes in the 1967 Six Day War and attracted by their similar security challenges, southern rebel army leaders sought Israel’s assistance. General Joseph Lagu, the founder and commander of the first civil war’s rebel group, Anya Nya, wrote a letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol: “We have a common concern, and that is fighting the Arabs.” Lagu argued that Anya Naga could prevent the Sudanese forces from strengthening the Arab fighters in Israel — with Israel’s support.
“They called everybody in the world to help them, and nobody did anything about it,” Haim Koren, the Israeli Ambassador to South Sudan, remarks to The Politic. “They described their situation and said, ‘Nobody wants to help us, can you do that?’” He continues, “We brought their leader, at the time, from the South to Jerusalem. He met our Prime Minister, Golda Meir, and she said: ‘We have to help them.’ So from the year ’69, we were the only country in the world that helped them to survive against the North. That, they don’t forget.”
Just as the southern Sudanese likened their security situation to Israel’s, Amir Sagron, who formerly worked under Koren in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explains that Israel also “felt a resemblance to the [South Sudanese] situation: a non-Muslim nation, a small one, figuring out how to live inside this turmoil of Islamic radicalism around them. If you ask me, it was really natural that they turn[ed] to us.” Wary of extremist, Islamic governments, Israel jumped at the chance to assist South Sudan.
Many South Sudanese attribute their military perseverance to Israel’s assistance. A South Sudanese student studying in America, who preferred to remain anonymous, remembers his father — a military commander — explained that Israel provided their weapons.
“Personally, I would do anything to help the Israeli cause,” the student affirms, “seeing how much they helped us in our cause.” In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Lagu claimed that although international arms dealers and Congolese rebels also supplied weapons, Israel’s truly “tipped the scales.”
Yet Israeli aid was actually relatively minimal. “It was not a big amount of funding, we mainly gave them training and guidance from the 1960s, and they know how about how to defend themselves when fighting against an army,” Koren grants. Israelis sent Soviet-made munitions seized from Arab forces, saving the nation money and decreasing the likelihood of being held responsible for arms shipments. “Occasionally, you’ll run into someone with an Israeli name, named after someone who worked with an operative” — like the technician or doctor Israel sent — says Zaki Djemal, the former North American Regional Director for IsraAID, a privately-funded civic organization present in over forty developing countries.
“The South Sudanese still remember the time when Israel was very supportive,” he continues. “My understanding is that the actual support in terms of numbers was quite minimal. But in the collective memory, it’s my sense, that it became much more important than it actually was.”
It is unlikely that Israeli aid was continuous since the 1960s, but after South Sudan became an independent state, both private and public Israeli donors substantially increased their support. The Israeli government backs South Sudanese agriculture and infrastructure, two severely underdeveloped sectors.
“We inherited almost nothing; they really had to start from scratch,” Susan D. Page, U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan, told The Politic in summer 2013. “We are not talking about just ordering some new furniture — they didn’t have pens, papers, and stationery, let alone computers, electricity, and running water, vehicles, roads. It certainly is nation-building.” Israel can offer the lessons it has learned regarding: “agriculture, water management, post-trauma assistance, massive return and integration of diaspora/refugees, to name just a few,” Ophelie Namiech, IsraAID’s country director in South Sudan, writes via email.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that South Sudan is projected to become one of Africa’s largest food producers. Israel may one day be able to import crops from the African state. However, to this day, most communities barely produce enough to subsist, and the FAO-WFP has imported emergency aid to fill the “cereal gap.”
Israel has focused on improving cultivation methods and transporting crops to markets, but this will not alleviate the problems that the South Sudanese student sees plaguing agriculture: “[D]uring the war, the government threw a lot of landmines over productive places, which people are still trying to demine.” He observed many refugees who became psychologically dependent on food provided in camps and hesitate to resume farming: “It’s been really hard to convince people: ‘You need to go back and till the land, there are no more landmines,’” the student regrets.
In addition to their government’s assistance, Israeli individuals fund IsraAID, which is devoted to furthering women’s rights in South Sudan. IsraAID decided to focus on gender-based violence in a country where women cannot legally own property in South Sudan but are themselves used to compensate for debts. “We are essentially working with the Ministry of Gender and Social Development, the Police, and several community-based organizations,” writes Namiech.
“We are thinking about the whole issue, and we cannot do it in a month or at the moment.” Koren remarks. “We are just starting.”
Israel’s generosity is commendable, but one must wonder why the Middle Eastern nation is so eager to help the new nation, so distant from its borders.
“We know that we can help,” explains Sagron. “But let’s not be naïve; the second interest is economic… the fact that Israel doesn’t have oil.” When South Sudan seceded from Sudan, it took about 80 percent of the formerly-united country’s oil reserves — approximately 6.6 billion barrels. Israel, on the other hand, depends on imported oil. In January 2013, South Sudan signed a promissory agreement with a number of Israeli oil companies.
Yet this agreement is unlikely to provide immediate economic benefits for either country. Most of the oil fields lie in the disputed territory between Sudan and South Sudan, where violent clashes have raged since 2011. And even if the disputes are settled, South Sudan currently has no way to export its oil except through the Khartoum-controlled pipeline to Sudan. The newly split nations heatedly debate the pipeline’s use; it was nearly shut down in September, which would have led to extreme financial losses and damage to the pipeline. President Kiir has considered constructing a pipeline through Kenya, but this may not be ready until 2030.
Koren is right to be pragmatic about the prospect of importing South Sudan’s oil. “I think that [importing South Sudanese oil] might be possible — with a careful, slow process,” he comments, “with listening and being aware of the difficulties.”
If the first two reasons for Israel’s support are humanitarian and economic, Sagron points out, “the third factor is strategic.” Sudan is located on the Red Sea, which has a “direct path to Israel.” And the Red Sea poses problems for Europeans, Americans, and Israelis alike.
“There are pirates, mainly from Somalia, and countries like Iran trying to sweep in to deliver bombs and weapons,” he explains. “You can see why Israel would want to be involved in the region. If we are just working with Egypt, sometimes it’s too late. When you see Iran and the Gulf nearby, you can understand why Israel needs to have the ability to defend itself.”
Some argue that an alliance with South Sudan will enable Israel to monitor weapon transfers from Iran, through Sudan, and finally to Hamas in Gaza. Israel calls Sudan a base for Islamic militants. While Koren dismisses the idea that intelligence may be part of Israel’s South Sudanese strategy, he does acknowledge the benefit of an ally in the region: “if you are located so close to Sudan… it gives you a very good, a very different perspective.”
Deng, the South Sudanese activist, believes South Sudan’s upstream position on the Nile can even stabilize Israel’s relations with Egypt. “Egypt needs South Sudan because of water. More than anything else, their life depends on the Nile,” he says. Regional water politics are so important that Egypt opposed South Sudan’s independence. Yet, this issue is seldom discussed, and Koren laughs that he has not heard it before: “We have enough issues with Egypt; we don’t need South Sudan to help us with that bilateral relationship.”
South Sudan’s location is strategic for yet another reason. It falls within the East African Christian alliance that Israel has sought to build, as radical Islam has spread in the region. “South Sudan cannot directly help Israel,” Koren reiterates, “but it is strategically located in a place together with countries like Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia. That is a kind of corridor of Christianity in Africa — that works together with the West, usually.”
Every relationship occasionally has problems, and this odd couple is no exception.
When South Sudan gained independence, President Kiir welcomed South Sudan’s displaced citizens. Overwhelmed by swelling numbers of African refugees, and the widely publicized violence associated with them in South Tel Aviv, Israel immediately planned the return of the South Sudanese — who the Israeli Supreme Court had declared were no longer refugees.
The Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, announced in February 2012 that South Sudanese nationals must be repatriated by March. The South Sudanese could claim $1,300 and a plane ticket if they voluntarily resettled, or were forcibly deported if they refused. Over the next two months, Israel sent the approximately 1,000 South Sudanese who had come as refugees — some of whom had lived there for seven years — back to South Sudan.
The media widely criticized the way that Israel handled the situation. In June, the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv reported that 22 of the refugees returned to South Sudan had since died due to medical problems contracted in the underdeveloped state. Many of those quoted in the article disparaged Israel for failing to prepare the South Sudanese for their destination.
Deng, however, rejects the notion that it has had any effect on the South Sudanese sentiment toward Israel. “When 2011 came and South Sudan became independent, nobody had any argument that the South Sudanese should not go back to their own country,” he says. Deng further asserted, “The relationship between South Sudan and Israel is not based on the refugees. It is a very long, solid friendship that is going to be there forever.”
Despite the strong partnership, South Sudan and Israel are not in equal positions to contribute. From Israel, South Sudan receives much-needed aid and institutional support. It aspires to repay its ally. From South Sudan, Israel can only hope to obtain security benefits and, perhaps one day, economic benefits, too.
According to Deng, “The way that Israel has an ally in the United States, Southern Sudan [sic] is going to be that ally for Israel. Southern Sudan will not be silent when Israel is being bullied by their neighbors. When Israel is being bullied by its neighbors, they are bullying Southern Sudan itself.”
If South Sudan fulfills the highest expectations, Israel will reap immense economic and military benefits from its indebted ally. If it lags behind, like many of its African neighbors, the relationship is unlikely to change: Israel will continue exchanging small amounts of aid for a strategic foothold in Africa and words of praise and promise. Meanwhile, the South Sudanese people continue to feel indebted to Israel.
As Lagu, the Anya Nya General, said to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Israel’s assistance helped “set us on the path to where we are today, and that will never be forgotten.”