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Israel to take key position on South Sudan’s new foreign policy map

KHARTOUM - During January’s referendum on secession, General Joseph Lagu, a veteran of South Sudan’s freedom struggle for fifty years, predicted that Israel would be a focal point of foreign relations if the vote for secession won enough support.

During Sudan’s civil war, many southern refugees fled to Israel and still live there today.
© Yoaf Limier / AFP/ Getty Images

“We have the discretion to deal with any nation we want to deal with,” he said at the time. “We will establish good relations with Israel and open an Israeli embassy in South Sudan."

“Israel answered my requests and sent military reinforcement.”
General Joseph Lagu

Six months later, his forecast was borne out by Vice President Riek Machar’s recent announcement that South Sudan will have formal relations with Israel. The state recognised South Sudan one day after Juba’s declaration of independence.

“We look forward to playing a role in solving the existing issues in the Arab world, even the issues between Israel and the Arab countries,” said Machar on Al-Hurra television, adding that Juba “fully understands” issues in the Arab world, including “the right to have a Palestinian state.”

The notion of the UN’s newest member as a beacon of diplomacy in one of the world’s most turbulent regions might raise a few eyebrows of South Sudan watchers who regard the country’s own problems, from deficient infrastructure and poor health care to high illiteracy, as hugely daunting on their own.

On the other hand, Africa’s youngest state can use all the friends it can get, and Foreign Minister Deng Alor Kuol, announcing 21 requests from other countries to open embassies and diplomatic missions in Juba, said South Sudan will not refuse the normalisation of relations with any country.

Operation Moses

While the files on Israeli-Sudanese relations remain confidential, a few were revealed after a covert airlift of 8,000 famine-stricken Ethiopian Jews, or Falashas, from Sudan during six weeks between November 1984 and January 1985. It later emerged that the Sudanese government, under President Jaafar Nimeiri, had secretly taken part in this mission, code-named Operation Moses.

Listen to Marvis Birungi's interview with Joseph Lagu

As the Israeli media began uncovering the details of the airlift, the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz published the memoirs of a former general who ran Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. He described a spa built by the Sudanese Government on the shores of the Red Sea that was used as a cover for Mossad agents posing as tourists. The spa’s real purpose was to serve as a staging area to transfer the Falashas to Israel during Operation Moses.

The memoirs also revealed that the Belgian government had rented Boeing planes to transfer the Ethiopian refugees from Khartoum to Tel Aviv.

Sudan halted the airlift immediately when Shimon Peres, Israel’s Prime Minister at the time, spoke about it at a news conference and asked people not to discuss it.

Israel virtually vanished from Khartoum’s regional map after the incident, but reappeared by linking the former Egyptian regime to the government of Sudan.
Hidden Normalisation Uncovered

When South Sudan’s Information Minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, welcomed the formalisation of relations with Israel, many were not surprised. Ties between South Sudanese and the Jewish State have a long history.
“We will establish relations with any state that recognises us.”
Barnaba Marial Benjamin, South Sudan’s Information Minister
Decades ago, Israel supplied southern rebels with physical and moral support, and the favour was returned. According to a statement by General Lagu, he sent a letter of congratulations to Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol after the outbreak of the 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel launched successful, pre-emptive attacks on Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

“I told him that I am also fighting the Arabs in the north of Sudan,” said Lagu. “I struck a deal with him in return for blocking the northern army from helping the Egyptians. Israel answered my requests and sent me military reinforcement.”

Some analysts see the opening of an Israeli embassy in South Sudan as part of a strategic plan by Israel to extend its political and military influence across the region.

On a practical level, however, the newly independent state is keen to forge relations “with all countries in the world,” in the words of Information Minister Marial, “since this will contribute to establishing international relations that accomplish our agenda. We will establish relations with any state that recognises us.”

Interests vs. Priorities

Another pragmatic aspect of South Sudan’s foreign relations was explained by Luol Deng, the new nation’s oil minister.

The cost of opening one South Sudanese embassy in another country equals the cost of building 50 schools, and the monthly expenditures of one foreign embassy represent the equivalent of wages for 1,000 teachers.  

In an agreement between the two neighbours, he said, the Juba government will try to share use of some countries’ embassies in the north to normalise diplomatic relations with them until South Sudan is able to open its own embassies.

“For Israel, South Sudan is like a hen laying gold eggs.”
Professor Hassan Makki, Africa International University, Khartoum
Deng added that Egypt is still watching the growing relationship between Juba and the Israel with concern because it fears a negative impact on its own interests, especially regarding use of the Nile.  

Analysts suggest Khartoum may seek hidden normalisation with Israel through its own embassy in the south, which could play the role of a patron of Israeli relations with the north, especially since South Sudan relies heavily on international support.

In turn, Israel may strive to help South Sudan implement a strategic agenda in the region. Given the new nation’s abundant natural resources, Professor Hassan Makki, a specialist in African affairs at Khartoum’s Africa International University, describes Israel’s regard for Juba as “a hen laying golden eggs.”

African Union Ambassador Osman al-Sayed, head of the Middle East Research Center, ruled out any possibility that Khartoum will take official steps to normalise diplomatic relations with Israel.

“The relationship between Israel and South of Sudan is deeply rooted since the founding of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement,” he said, adding that leaked documents reveal some SPLM leaders were trained in Tel Aviv. “Israel has been present in the south even before the announcement of independence.”

Editor: Alexa Dvorson

The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or opinions of the publishers of

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