Text size

The world is likely to welcome South Sudan as its newest state after its citizens take part in a referendum on independence this Sunday − but will Israel also have a new official ally? The outcome of the vote, mandated by the 2005 agreement that ended decades of civil war, seems clear. South Sudan is likely to secede from the north, and leaders of the state-in-waiting have already been making encouraging noises about establishing official ties with Israel, which provided discreet support to some rebel groups during the lengthy civil war.

In October, South Sudan president Salva Kiir Mayardit, leader of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, said he did not rule out the opening of an Israeli embassy in the capital, Juba. Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin was even more direct. “The independent south will 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?” he said.

On the face of it, official relations between the mixed Christian and animist South Sudan and Israel would make perfect sense. Israel would gain another friend in the world, a new East African ally, along with Kenya and Ethiopia, to help counteract the Sudan-Iran alliance, not to mention a potential base for the interdiction of smuggled materiel between Iran and the Gaza Strip.

Yet Jerusalem is not rushing to establish a new mission in Juba, with diplomats markedly cautious about accepting the invitation. For a start, they are emphatically not convinced about South Sudan’s commitment toward actually establishing diplomatic ties and suspect rather that its approach goes along with the classic assumption that if a developing country wants support from Western allies, it should make friendly noises toward Israel. Others note that the fledgling state will have to negotiate a complex set of alliances.

“Such statements regarding Israel are a clear indication of the political immaturity of the leadership of South Sudan,” says Prof. Yehudit Ronen, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center and political scientist at Bar-Ilan University. “South Sudan needs the utmost political support from its African and Arab environs. The last thing the leadership needs now are complications due to relations with Israel.”

Indications are that the leaders already realize this, with the London-based daily Asharq al-Awsat reporting last week that Kiir had assured Amr Moussa, general secretary of the Arab League, that he appreciated the sensitivities surrounding South Sudan-Israel relations.

Juba is going to have to choose its friends carefully because while secession seems inevitable, the political repercussions are far less clear. The most dramatic scenario would be a return to full-scale civil war.

Khartoum has long opposed the division of the country, not least due to fears of losing control of the approximately 80 percent of the country’s vast oil resources that lie in the south, although the 2005 peace agreement mandates that proceeds be split equally between the two sides.

Although many African states view the implications of the major precedent of the referendum with alarm, others, some of them Sudanese allies, have tempered their previous opposition. Even Egypt is now backing secession, perhaps hoping Juba will support it when it comes to a new agreement on the use of the waters of the Nile, signed in May by Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania, in an attempt to replace the long-resented 1959 treaty giving Egypt the largest share. Cairo boycotted the new accord with Khartoum’s support; now a Juba government must decide whether to sign the pact.

Further afield, China, staunch oil consumer and arms supplier to Khartoum, is trying to build close ties with both sides, and most recently Russia, previously concerned that an independent South Sudan would turn into a “new Somalia,” is also supporting secession.

“China and Russia are following the oil,” says Ronen. “If there is a new state in South Sudan, practical interests will shape relations with the new state, not ideology or emotion.”

A resumption of outright hostilities is deemed unlikely, however. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir already has an international arrest warrant hanging over his head for alleged war crimes and genocide, and the extent of the support he would receive both at home and abroad for a new and costly war is questionable. Khartoum may instead accept secession but maneuver to ensure that South Sudan is utterly dependent on it; all infrastructure for processing, not to mention exporting the oil, is in the north, together with the only seaport.

But conflict could still erupt in the form of a fresh internecine war within the rival tribes and interest groups in South Sudan itself. The majority Dinka control the oil resources, but others will also want to enjoy the profits, meaning a likely scramble over control. “Israel has absolutely no interest in getting sucked into either scenario,” says an Israeli official.
Evidently, diplomatic, security and intelligence links between Israel and South Sudan already exist under the radar, and these are likely to continue. But Israel doesn’t necessarily benefit from making these links public. Another friendly vote at the UN may not compensate for the potential troubles which might greet official Juba-Jerusalem ties.

Daniella Peled is an editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.