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Amid Arab Spring, Israel seeks new friends

Dec. 6, 2011 at 1:39 PM   |   Comments

TEL AVIV, Israel, Dec. 6 (UPI) -- With Islamic parties making giant gains in parliamentary elections across North Africa amid the Arab Spring, Israel is scrambling to find new friends in the region, the Mediterranean and Africa.

The 2010 rupture of relations between Israel and a key non-Arab ally, Turkey, has heightened the Jewish state's sense of international isolation at a time when it sees an existential threat from a nuclear-armed Iran.

The Jerusalem Post reports that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government is looking at "three clusters of states as allies and possible counterweights."

The first is in the eastern Mediterranean -- Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria, all longtime rivals of Turkey and wary of the drive by the Islamist-dominated government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to become the region's paramount power.

The second cluster lies in Africa -- Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria and the infant state of South Sudan, which became independent of Sudan in July.

Israel is focusing on the Islamic terrorism threat to seek new ties in these countries, primarily through security cooperation. Most of the target states are predominantly Christian seen to be potentially at risk from militant Islam.

Prime Minister Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Prime Minister Raila Odinga of Kenya both visited Israel in November. They met with President Shimon Peres, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Israel and Kenya signed a security pact during Odinga's visit.

Museveni also met Tamir Pardo, director of the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service. It clandestine contacts abroad have often paved the way for secret alliances or formal diplomatic relations.

The Mossad connection was particularly evident in Museveni's visit. It was largely arranged by Rafi Eitan, a former Mossad director of operations. He was later head of the Bureau of Scientific Relations, which has since disbanded, that ran Jonathan Pollard, an Israeli agent who spied on the United States in 1984-85 and strained relations with Israel's strategic ally almost to breaking point.

Eitan, Israel's pensioner affairs minister in 2006-09, is seeking to establish business operations in Uganda.

Other former Mossad and military officials have long had close links with African states, either training their military and intelligence services or arranging the sale of Israeli weapons.

Israel's Defense Ministry recently cleared private Israeli security firms to operate in Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan. That includes setting up arms sales.

In 2004, two Israelis were arrested in Jordan for providing arms to Sudanese secessionists, the same group that now governs South Sudan.

The pair claimed at that time their co-conspirators included the son of a former head of the Mossad and Amos Golan, a former Special Forces commander known to be involved in arms deals in Uganda, Angola and other parts of Africa.

Both Museveni and Odinga expressed deep concern about the spread of Islamic militancy in Africa, most notably in North Africa, the Horn of Africa and most recently in oil-rich Nigeria.

Ugandan and Kenyan forces are fighting Islamic militants of al-Shabaab, which has links to al-Qaida, in Somalia.

Odinga's office said Netanyahu pledged to help Uganda build "a coalition against fundamentalism" that included Ethiopia, which during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie was a close Israeli ally, South Sudan and Tanzania.

The third cluster is other Arab states. These are the most sensitive. Israeli officials haven't identified any but Netanyahu called them "these newfound friends." It seems clear these are Persian Gulf Arab states who share a common concern about Iran.

In recent years, there have been tantalizing signs Israel was seeking to strengthen bonds, largely clandestine, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others.

Their intelligence chiefs have met several times, mostly in Jordan. There have been reports the gulf states would look the other way if Israel mounted pre-emptive airstrikes against Iran's nuclear sites through their air space.

Israel appears to be seeking to refashion it long-held "periphery doctrine," a strategic plan devised by Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.

This involved establishing relations with such key states as Turkey, imperial Iran, Ethiopia, Kenya and others, even Iraq's Kurds, to counter the ring of hostile Arab states around Israel when it was founded in 1948.

This outer ring of friendly nations fell apart for various reasons over the years, including Israel's links to apartheid South Africa and the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.

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