Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail recently accused Israel of fomenting the violence in Darfur from its “base” in… Eritrea. Evidently he was undeterred by the 600 miles of inhospitable desert that Tel Aviv’s intrepid agents would have had to negotiate between Eritrea on Sudan’s east and Darfur in the country’s west. Or, for that matter, by the existence, or lack thereof, of such profound Israeli clout in Eritrea.
At the most superficial level, Ismail’s comment appeared to reflect generalized Arab anger that the plight of Darfur’s unfortunate non-Arab population at the hands of Sudanese Arabs is stealing the global media show away from the Palestinians and their suffering. But at a deeper level, it also indicated a totally anachronistic sense of Israel’s strategic interests in the Middle East.
Forty and even 30 years ago, Israel might have taken an interest in the rebellion in Darfur. At the time, it reportedly supported the rebels in south Sudan in their struggle against the Arab Muslim regime in Khartoum. Pinning down Sudanese army units who fought the southerners deep inside the country kept those units from helping Egypt at the front in Sinai in the 1967 war, just as Israeli military and other aid to the Iraqi Kurds pinned down Iraqi army units that might otherwise have joined the Arab war effort against Israel in 1967 and 1973. For the cost of a single Mirage jet fighter — the budget for a clandestine investment in weapons and training for southern Sudanese or Kurds fighting for their freedom from Arab imperialism — an entire division could be eliminated from the Arab order-of-battle against Israel.
Israel’s helping the southern Sudanese, the Iraqi Kurds, the Yemenite royalists, the Moroccans, the Ethiopians and the Shah’s regime in Iran, as well as ethnic minorities closer to home like the Lebanese Maronites, weakened the Arab mainstream. This made good strategic sense back in the days of Gamal Abd al-Nasser’s pan-Arab strategy and all-out Arab wars against Israel. Israeli assistance to peoples on the Arab periphery who were themselves locked in struggle with the Arab mainstream began in Ben-Gurion’s day in the late 1950s, and also provided nonmilitary benefits: oil from Iran, as well as immigration to Israel of beleaguered Jewish minorities in Iraq and Ethiopia. And it corresponded closely with the American strategic priority of opposing Soviet-influenced regimes in the greater Middle East.
But something dramatic happened to the region during the late 1970s. Periphery friendlies like the Shah of Iran and Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie were overthrown by radicals, while the Arab mainstream, led by Anwar Sadat, began to make peace with Israel. If Jerusalem had to choose between peace, however cold, with Egypt, and aid to Mengistu’s Ethiopia or the southern Sudanese — both seen by the Egyptians as potential threats to the sources of the Nile, its own paramount strategic interest — there was no contest.
The 1982 Lebanon War, with its disastrous Israeli-Maronite, Jewish-Christian collaboration, sounded the death knell of the periphery doctrine. Since then, for better or for worse, Israel plays the Middle East strategic game in accordance with local rules: an informal strategic alliance with non-Arab Turkey, but also with Arab Jordan; non-Arab Iran becomes enemy No. 1, while Arab Egypt is invited to help out in Gaza.
The attempt by the Sudanese to blame Israel for the Arab-African tribal conflict in Darfur is in some ways little different from Turkey’s recent accusations that Israeli agents practically had taken over Iraqi Kurdistan, and that they were encouraging it to seek independence and using it as a base for spying on Iran’s nuclear program. Why would Israel antagonize Turkish sensitivities about Kurdistan when Turkey is a far more important Israeli ally — one that share’s Israel’s concerns regarding Iranian nuclear weapons — especially when Iraq no longer constitutes a military threat? Israel’s defense establishment practically did a striptease to prove to Ankara that Israel’s hands were clean.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan apparently had other motives for fingering Israel: pleasing his rural Muslim constituents, endearing Turkey to the Islamic Conference, and reaching contingency understandings with neighboring Iran and Syria in case their mutual neighbor, Iraq, disintegrates due to the inept manipulations of the United States.
Nor is the blame game limited to the periphery. Lately, the Saudi leadership has taken to accusing “Zionist agents” of fomenting the terrorist attacks perpetrated by Al Qaeda in the heart of the Islamic patrimony. That Israel is blamed for disasters in the Middle East — on the periphery or in the Islamic heartland — is nothing new. And in fact, sometimes the accusers don’t even mean Israel in the literal sense. They merely wish to imply that the local bad guys represent hostile interests.
The only thing is, those interests aren’t necessarily hostile anymore.
Yossi Alpher, a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and former senior adviser to Prime Minister Barak, is co-editor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org.