ANALYSIS: Finding Fault With Netanyahu’s Sudan Policy

YERUSHALAYIM -
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at PM Netanyahu's office. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at PM Netanyahu’s office. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

A group of high-minded Israelis, made up of opposition politicians and a few journalists looking every day for some fragment of a story, some crumb of information, to wield against the government and the person who stands at its head, Binyamin Netanyahu, were again on the job this week.

They were stirred into action by the revelation that Israel is “acting alongside the U.S. and European countries in encouraging them to aid the dictatorship in Sudan, following its severance of ties with Iran and moving closer to Saudi Arabia.”

Israel’s recent activity in Africa has been very successful. Many African leaders who themselves face the challenge of terrorism, are assisted by Israel, which is able to supply them with what they lack: accurate intelligence about the terrorist organizations, advice on how to combat them, and sometimes the means to do so, as well.

In return, the Africans are changing their policy toward Israel, broadening diplomatic contacts and trade with a country which until now they shunned.

The strides made in improving relations with African states, particularly Moslem ones, have been disturbing to these high-minded Israelis, who are keen to search out the crimes and villainy of those leaders against minorities in their countries.

They forget that only recently the United States, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and a list of others maintained ties with those same African countries, while keeping criticism of their domestic policies separate from the dictates of international diplomacy. They forget too that they are talking about Africa, where it is impossible to project the rules of conduct of Europe and Scandinavia onto societies where ancient tribal and ethnic feuds and warfare between states still prevails.

The Israeli government is well-advised to develop channels of communication around the world, including Africa, Asia and South America, places which have been neglected for years. It is to the credit of Avigdor Liberman that as foreign minister he reached out to some of these countries, though with only limited success. The time was not ripe. The rise of Islamic jihad has changed attitudes, and many realize that Israel is not part of the problem but part of the solution.

The Israelis explained to their American counterparts that it is worth helping the African states because they had changed direction. Sudan, for example, had allowed Iranian arms to be transported across their territory to Egypt, from there to northern Sinai, and from there some also went to Hamas in Gaza.

But a year ago, Sudan decided to cut off Iran, stopped the flow of arms and became friendlier toward the Sunni Muslim states led by Saudi Arabia. The Israelis told the Americans that they should make some positive gesture toward Khartoum, which would have the effect of making it easier on the Saudis to work with the West. They recommended that the U.S. remove Sudan from its list of states supporting terror, in light of their changed policy.

It was this Israeli diplomatic initiative which aroused the indignation of the high-minded critics of the government. They were quick to make a connection between the alleged crimes of the Sudanese leader in the civil war there, for whose arrest an international warrant has been issued, and the foreign policies of the country. Those who are realistic about Africa understand that the two must be kept separate. The Israelis did not attempt to whitewash the misdeeds of Omar al-Bashir in their conversations with Washington; only that Washington should consider opening a dialogue with Sudan — an entirely legitimate proposal.

The Sudanese government owes some $50 billion to various countries around the world, chiefly in Europe, and this has no doubt played a part in al-Bashir’s change of direction, in the hopes that it will facilitate a desperately needed restructuring of the loans.

Despite all that happened in Sudan, and in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands were massacred, America never severed relations with Khartoum. Washington did downgrade its diplomatic presence in the country, but there were always contacts.

Just two weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Sudanese counterpart Ibrahim Gandhoor, and American emissaries have been traveling the country, seeking to work out peace agreements among the warring groups.

Israel’s interest in better relations with Sudan also stems from Egypt’s desire for Israel to act as a go-between in its dispute over water rights with Sudan. The Nile River, which continues to be a major source of life for Egypt, courses through several countries including Sudan, before it reaches Egypt. Those countries have been building dams along the Nile, and Egypt is deeply concerned that interference with the river’s natural flow will lead to war.

Israel has been a key mediator between Egypt and its neighbors on the water issues, and the U.S., understanding this, has not criticized Israel for its approach.

However, the critics of Netanyahu found this week a pretext for opposing his African policies, despite all of the arguments in favor of them.