As long as the polarizing periphery doctrine exists, the newly independent South Sudan has no choice but to give Israel access to its resources.
Within hours of declaring its independence, Israel became one of the first countries to formally recognize the Republic of South Sudan. This comes as no surprise given the history of aid provided to Southern Sudanese fighters by the Israeli government. Since the 1960s, Israel has provided infrastructural, financial and military support to southern rebels as they fought for independence from the north.
The relationship between the two countries was further solidified in late December 2011 when South Sudanese President Salva Kiir visited Israel to establish diplomatic relations with Israeli President Shimon Peres. The two plan to exchange ambassadors in the near future with the possibility of South Sudan building an embassy in Jerusalem – a bold step for a weak nation given the disputed status of the city between Palestinians and Israelis.
South Sudan is geographically located along a route used by Iran to transfer financial and military assistance throughout the region. This aid is believed to support Palestinian resistance movements, which Israel perceives as a threat. Israel sees potential in the growing alliance with South Sudan as a gateway to weakening these groups by blocking transfer routes previously used by Iran to reach Sudan and other countries in the Middle East.
Israel is also very interested in accessing South Sudan’s large oil reserves. South Sudan contains 75% of all Sudanese oil. Currently, Israel imports 282,000 barrels of oil per day from other countries and may be able to get cheaper imports by tapping into South Sudan’s reserves. The major obstacle in establishing an oil trade between Israel and South Sudan is that South Sudan’s oil is exported through two pipelines that travel north through Sudan to the Red Sea. Recently Sudan has been accused of blocking the South’s oil exports from reaching the ports.
Before the split, oil revenues accounted for 50% of domestic revenue and 93% of Sudan’s total exports. Without those oil revenues, Sudan finds itself in an economic crisis with few options for growth. The 2005 peace agreement that ended the 22-year Second Sudanese Civil War included a 50-50 oil sharing agreement between the north and south; however, details of the agreement were not clearly defined and remain a point of conflict.
According to the Associated Press, Sudan proposed charging South Sudan a $36 fee per barrel transported through the pipelines; however, South Sudan only agreed to pay $0.70 per barrel in addition to a $2.6 billion aid package over four years. Until the oil sharing issues are negotiated and oil flows resume, both the north and south will face severe economic challenges. If Israel is to pursue an oil trade with South Sudan, it may choose to establish an alternative oil route to bypass negotiations with Sudan.
Reuters Africa reported that Royal Dutch Shell is already considering building a new pipeline through Ethiopia. Supporting the development of a pipeline from South Sudan through Ethiopia would be a difficult feat given the lack of infrastructure in both countries, but the overall success of such a project would be beneficial to Israel’s interests in securing oil ties in the region.
More important than securing oil is Israel’s interests in the Nile River as a negotiating power over Egypt. Over a decade ago, Sudan already had concerns of Israel’s interests in Southern Sudan’s water. According to Ronald Bleier’s article published in a 1997 issue of Middle East Policy, “
Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al Bashir…claimed that Israel had its eyes on the untapped natural resources in Southern Sudan and on the sources of the Nile as an effective leverage over Egypt.”
The statement was made after a visit to Israel by the leader of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) in 1994.
Israel’s relations with Egypt have been greatly damaged over the past year with the downfall of former President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian raid of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, and Israel’s fears of a rising Muslim Brotherhood. As its influence in Egypt wanes, Israel’s relationship with South Sudan will provide upstream access and control to the flow of the Nile River, which it can use as leverage in negotiations with Cairo.
It is clear that Israel sees many advantages of a tight alliance with South Sudan. But what does South Sudan gain from the relationship? According to Herb Keinon of the Jerusalem Post, “South Sudan is part of a cluster of countries in eastern Africa, including Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, that…[are] facing threats from Islamic radicals, giving them an interest in closer cooperation with Israel.”
This strategy of creating alliances with non-Arab Muslim countries, known as the periphery doctrine, was enacted by David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, in the 1950s. Joseph Alpher, author of The Iran-Iraq War: Impact and Implications, explains that Ben Gurion believed the idea of the periphery doctrine “would eventually generate a desire on the part of the Arab mainstream to enter into similar alliances with Israel — once the Arabs recognized how valuable an ally Israel could be.”
However, the doctrine has essentially had the opposite effect by polarizing Muslim and non-Muslim populations against each other in perceived religious conflicts as is seen in Sudan, Iraq, and even Palestine/Israel. The heart of these conflicts actually revolves around the inequitable distribution of land, power, and resources in a post-colonial world. The spread of fundamentalist ideologies and religious violence can be better addressed through healthy dialogue among diverse ethnic and religious populations in the region about the real issues at hand rather than by isolating specific groups from economic or diplomatic alliances.
The Middle East is undergoing regime changes that challenge the status quo of Israel’s former alliances. Depending on how the Egyptian elections develop,
Israel will either need to negotiate with new Islamic democracies outside of the periphery strategy or seek other methods of regional control and resource security, which it is doing in South Sudan.
Israel may have more to gain from the alliance than South Sudan, but in such early stages in its development, the south is fragile, impoverished and desperate for support.
Another war may soon erupt between the north and south over unresolved disputes regarding borders, water, and oil. As long as the polarizing periphery doctrine exists, the newly independent South Sudan has no choice but to give Israel access to its resources and hope that in return Israel will provide the long-term support it will need in order to combat future conflicts and successfully develop into a stable and prosperous nation.
Feature photo | Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit, in New York Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011. Avi Ohayon | GPO