South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir sets off on an official visit to Israel.
Israel and South Sudan share no borders. The distance between their capital cities Tel Aviv and Juba is more than 3,000 kilometres. The two countries do not have any real cultural, religious or ethnic links either.
“From an Israeli perspective South Sudan is situated in a very geographically important region. Fundamentally the geographical interest is to block Iranian inroads to the area. We have a problem with Somalia, we’ve seen arms flow from Iran through Sudan into Sinai and then into Gaza and I think that is a major concern for Israel.“
– Herb Keinon, Jerusalem Post
And yet, Israel was one of the first countries in the world to recognise South Sudan’s independence earlier this year. In September, Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, and Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, met at the sideline of the United Nations general assembly. This week, Kiir has made an official visit to Israel.
What explains this close yet discreet relationship?
Both sides described Kiir’s trip to Israel as a historic visit, and it reveals the strength of the relationship between Tel Aviv and Juba. Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, described it as a defining moment in the history of the Middle East.
Both sides have also agreed to boost their co-operation in all fields. Israel’s foothold in South Sudan is significant, as it continues its efforts to build a Christian alliance in Africa to fend off Arab influence and the growing Islamic trends there.
Observers say Israel has found fertile soil in Africa’s military conflicts to market its weapons industry and gain influence. But Israeli ties to Sudan’s southern region go back to the 1960s, when it offered aid and training to the rebels fighting the northern government. In that context, it is not surprising that it took less than 24 hours for Israel to recognise the newborn Republic of South Sudan this year.
“I think South Sudanese would like to have a military relationship [with Israel], already their territory is being bombed by Khartoum and really there is no one supporting them.“
– Jacob Akol, Association for Media Development in Southern Sudan
An Israeli ambassador is due to arrive in Juba in the near future, but in a sign of just how deep the ties between the two countries are, Kiir recently told a senior member of Israel’s ruling Likud party that South Sudan would be one of a handful of countries to establish an embassy in Jerusalem, despite the city’s disputed status with regards Palestine’s claim.
So should Israel’s neighbours be worried about its ties with South Sudan? And what interest would Israel have in building another foothold in East Africa?
Inside Story, with presenter Teymoor Nabili, discusses with guests: Herb Keinon, a diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Post; Jacob Akol, the director of the South Sudanese information website Gurtong.net and the chairman of the Association for Media Development in Southern Sudan; and Gamal Nkrumah, the deputy editor of Al Ahram Weekly.