- By Robert ZeligerRobert Zeliger is News Editor of Foreign Policy.
The world’s newest state — South Sudan — and Israel today established full diplomatic relations and will soon exchange ambassadors. The move was not a surprise. South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar said two weeks ago that his country would have "relations with all the Arab and Muslim countries and even with Israel." And a delegation of Israeli officials recently visited the African nation’s capital, Juba, to hold talks with officials there.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officially recognized the new country a week before the U.N. voted to make it the 193rd state to be admitted to the world body, earlier this month. "We wish it success," Netanyahu said at the time. "It is a peace-seeking country and we would be happy to cooperate with it in order to ensure its development and prosperity."
Israel, which has no relations with northern Sudan, has promised South Sudan economic help — something it is in need of.
The Jewish state sees Africa as important diplomatic territory and has been offering economic aid and lucrative business deals in recent years — including arms and agriculture — in an attempt to counter Iran’s growing clout on the continent. The effort is partially about votes in the U.N. — Africa has 54 now. Iran has been trying to extend its outreach to African states like Senegal and Nigeria in an effort to counter its growing isolation in the West.
"This isn’t likely to take the form of an auction-like bidding contest, but increased financial diplomacy by both the suitors, including targeted investments and aid projects designed to curry favor," Eurasia Group’s Philippe de Pontet told Reuters last year.
Israel has another reason for wanting to establish ties with the new country. In recent years it has been flooded with thousands of refugees from Sudan — people fleeing strife in both Darfur and South Sudan. They sneak into Israel through Egypt and have stirred debate about whether the country should be more or less welcoming. Already, since the announcement of new ties, the country’s interior minister, Eli Yishai, has called on Israel to begin negotiations with South Sudan to return the refugees.
(In the image above, Sudanese refugees living in Tel Aviv celebrate independence on July 10.)