Mideast Commentary: Long Live The Republic of South Sudan!

July 14th, 2011

Ed Rettig, Director, AJC-Jerusalem

We saw history in the making as the crowds in Juba celebrated the declaration of independence of the new Republic of South Sudan. This independent state the size of Texas creates a precedent for the continent of Africa to break the bondage of boundaries imposed by colonial empires.

We in Israel and Palestine need to view developments in South Sudan with humility and a willingness to learn. Certainly, thoughtful leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah might find that the freshly minted South Sudan Republic throws into stark relief some of the dysfunctions that afflict their own national struggles.

The odds against independence for South Sudan were much greater than those facing the Palestinians. The barbarity with which the Sudanese regime repressed opponents got President Omar al-Bashir indicted at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. South Sudan paid an exorbitant price for independence: one and half to two million people dead in decades of fighting against the North.

The new nation faces daunting development challenges. Illiteracy is rampant, running at about 75%. Most of its people live in stark poverty on less than a dollar a day. Politically, its borders are not yet fully delineated. Despite a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the division of the Abyei region remains contested. The Nuba people continue to oppose the North, which responds with military violence. The country is flooded with refugees, some 300,000 repatriates from the North and another 270,000 internally displaced persons. And internal security is threatened by tribal strife over matters like cattle disputes and longstanding blood feuds. Reuters reports a UN estimate that in the current year, 2,300 people lost their lives in such violence.

This should provide a reality check for Palestinians and their supporters who obsess about a “humanitarian crisis” in Palestine that requires flotillas and “flytillas.” Compared with South Sudan, Palestine is the French Riviera. This raises serious questions about the moral justification for the Palestinians to take extreme stands that make compromise so difficult, while they continue to act as a bottomless drain on the ultimately limited resources the developed world can provide in aid. The ongoing conflict with Israel is the greatest impediment to weaning the Palestinians off international financial support. Their intransigence diverts funds that would be better spent on much poorer populations that, unfortunately, have less political clout.

Israel can learn an equally humbling lesson from the South Sudan experience: that the international community can sometimes bring resolution to seemingly intractable conflicts. Just a decade ago, few saw a chance for the emergence of an independent South Sudan. Many in the Muslim world considered the very idea of the largely Christian and animist south asserting sovereignty as an act of aggression against Muslim hegemony. And yet the South Sudanese leadership, working through the international community and with the support of the United States, hammered out a deal with the violent regime in the North.

Many Israelis have lost faith in the UN and its agencies, and for very good reasons (witness the latest outrage - the UN Human Rights Council’s rapporteur on the Palestinians posted an anti-Semitic caricature on his blog). But the celebrations in Juba suggests that despite the system’s vicious abuses, under the right conditions the international community can get the job done.