South Sudan joins the family of nations amid rising tensions with its neighbor to the north. While Israel has diplomatic and military interests in the new country, it is treading carefully for now
It is not often one gets to start a sentence about the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir with the words “to his credit.” But it is definitely worth noting that despite his original insistence that the South would never secede, on Saturday he will be among the honored guests in Juba as South Sudan officially declares itself as an independent country. Perhaps even more notable, Bashir’s government in the North’s capital, Khartoum, recognized the world’s newest nation even before the weekend’s festivities.
But while the countdown to independence officially ends, another countdown begins. The estimated one million South Sudanese living in the North now have nine months in which to relocate to their new country. Many got a head-start, having already packed and left. But some – defiant assimilationists – are expected to try and stay.
One has to wonder if Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is taking notes on how to effectively – and quietly – enforce a population transfer. And this writer wonders why there is not more of a global outcry against it. Either way, this is not the only theme that should be familiar to readers who follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The creation of two states for two peoples, living side-by-side (or, above-and-below as is the case) is meant to mark the official end of hostilities between the two, tensions that have spanned some six decades. (Where have we heard this before?) But it is already clear that will not totally happen. There continue to be territorial disputes over the reserves of oil-rich Abyei, which many in the South continue to claim as their own. Already rebel groups that broke-off from the Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which paved the road to independence for the South, have vowed to keep fighting. Perhaps with good reason – oil revenues from Abyei for Sudan equal some $95 billion dollars a year. Knowing it is an asset worth defending, al-Bashir has spent a third of that on his military. The South, which by default is born into poverty as one of the world’s poorest country, is showing it, too, is committed to military spending: three dollars to the army for every one dollar for education.
Israel, naturally, is watching very closely, but do not expect a book entitled “From Juba to Jerusalem” any time soon. Israel will likely find a friend in South Sudan, and presumably will even open an embassy. The South’s president, Salva Kiir, has already declared his openness to as much. But it may take a while for relations to really solidify. Israel will use South Sudan’s independence to show the world what it believes can come of careful, bilateral negations (a clear slam at Palestinian efforts to take their cause to the UN General Assembly in September). And Israel will likely contribute – even if secretly – to the training of the South Sudanese army, a Christian buffer to the Muslim (and often Iran-aligned) North. But in all likeliness the new country will be less-than-thrilled to absorb the North’s refugees. And it may respond unfavorably as Israel attempts to repatriate 8,000 Sudanese currently in the country to South Sudan, even though only a quarter are actually from the South.
It appears that Israel will recognize the new state immediately after the United State and European Union do. But do not expect Bibi and Bashir to be seated next to each other at the ceremonies in Juba. In fact, the Israeli government is sending no one. Perhaps it is afraid of reacting in a way that could backfire. Or perhaps it is afraid of reacting at all.