Tunisian relations with Israel: Normalization or Criminalization?

2024-03-18    |   

Tunisian relations with Israel: Normalization or Criminalization?

Undoubtedly, the war on Gaza has created a new balance of power in the Arab region that has allowed renewed demands to criminalize normalization with Israel and revitalized popular opposition to the Zionist state and the policies of the imperialistic countries backing it. However, the tragic irony in Tunisia is that despite the barbarity of this genocidal war, the pro-Palestinian movement remains weak. The regime has managed to paralyze the demand to criminalize normalization and neutralize collective action.


This article will return to the historical contexts that defined Tunisia’s relations with the State of Israel and understand the failure of the attempts to criminalize normalization with it, especially in the wake of the revolution, which gave this demand new impetus.


From Zionist Activity to the Complicity of the Ruling Elite

Researching the normalization issue today inevitably leads us back to distant historical contexts that shaped and governed Tunisia’s stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Before independence, the relevant context was primarily the growing influence of the Zionist movement in Tunisia following the Second World War and its successful establishment of relations with Destour Party leaders. After independence, it was the Tunisian state’s alignment with the “Western camp”, which became particularly apparent via its role in the wake of the “Arab Cold War”.[1]

The first Zionist association emerged in the capital in 1910.[2] Others were soon established in coastal and then interior cities. In 1920, the Tunisian Zionist Federation was established in an attempt to unite these various dispersed groups and received official recognition from the colonial administration. Despite its success in forming ties with international Zionist circles,[3] its influence remained marginal.[4] The turning point came in the wake of the Second World War. Between 1948 and 1950, approximately 8,000 Tunisian Jews – most of them among the urban poor – migrated to Palestine (Tunisian Jews at the time numbered around 95,000 and constituted 2.8% of the population).[5] The years 1954 to 1956 witnessed another boom with the migration of approximately 15,300 Jews from various social backgrounds.

Three key factors spurred this migration. The first was the backing that French colonialism provided to the Zionist movement in Tunisia by discreetly – and then officially from 1947 onwards – allowing Zionist agencies to operate an office in the capital to mobilize Jews to migrate to Palestine and establish permanent sea routes via Algeria and Marseille to transport them. The second was the momentum that the Zionist movement witnessed after the Second World War because of the Vichy government’s application of anti-Jew laws in Tunisia (November 1940 to August 1943), as well as Germany’s occupation of the country in November 1942 and the subsequent imprisonment of thousands of young Jews in forced labor camps and the death of dozens of them. Together, these factors strengthened a sense of insecurity among Jews,[6] which the Zionist movement harnessed in its settler-colonial project in Palestine. Finally, the Zionist movement, in the midst of declaring the establishment of the State of Israel and the Nakba [the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands in 1948], exploited the Youssefist crisis and Tunisia’s independence to stoke the Jewish minority’s fear that Muslims would monopolize power.[7] To these factors can be added another that, while not decisive in the growth of this migration, allowed any national political opposition to it to be neutralized: Israel’s success, from 1952 until the Tripartite Aggression on Egypt in 1956, in forming secret ties with leaders in the front rank of the Destour Party, such as Habib Bourguiba, Bahi Ladgham, Mohamed Masmoudi, Hédi Nouira, and even Salah ben Youssef before the internal autonomy crisis.[8] These figures aspired to become closer to the major states sponsoring Israel, chief among them the United States, in order to gain their support for Tunisian independence.[9]

Hence, it is no surprise that the migration movement continued – albeit at a slower pace – after 1956, especially from 1962 to 1967, and that the secret meetings between Tunisia and Israel resumed after the Suez Crisis abated. Although the Bourguibist regime made a show of a few measures for the benefit of the Jewish minority, such as the appointment of a Jewish minister in the first independent government and the election of two Jews to the National Constituent Council, it excluded them from positions classified as “sensitive” and continued to tolerate the Jewish Agency’s activity in Tunisia. Bourguiba even boasted in his secret meeting in 1964 in Geneva with Alexander Easterman, representative of the World Jewish Congress and envoy of the Israeli foreign minister, that he was the only head of state in the Arab world to not voluntarily prevent Jews from migrating to Israel.[10]

Undoubtedly, Bourguiba’s speech in Jericho in 1965 was a pivotal moment in confirming Tunisia’s loyalty to American policy in the Arab region, as well as its alignment in the Cold War between rival poles governing the region at the time: Egypt and Saudi Arabia.[11] This consistently governed the regime’s stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict over the following decades. Bourguiba openly declared his positioning against Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), calling for the “all-or-nothing policy” to be abandoned (i.e. for recognition of Israel’s right to exist) and for “every step that brings us closer to the goal” to be accepted (i.e. for recognition of the partition resolution and the borders of the 1949 truce). The war of June 1967 did not change Tunisia’s stance on Israel. While Bourguiba, under pressure from the popular movement that followed the defeat (which he fiercely repressed), was compelled to ease his criticisms of Nasserism, he remained absent from the “three-nos” summit (no peace, no recognition, and no negotiation) in Khartoum in August 1967.

Contrary to the official narrative, Tunisia agreed to host the PLO after its eviction from Beirut in 1982 not as an expression of the Bourguiba regime’s support for the Palestinian cause but as a response to pressure from the Ronald Reagan administration, which supported the Zionist invasion of Beirut and was eager to fragment the Palestinian resistance across Arab countries that share no border with Palestine.[12] Likewise, the Israeli raid on Hammam Chott in 1985 had no effect on Tunisia’s stance on the issue; it maintained its position as a trusted ally of the United States even though the later deemed the raid a “legitimate response to acts of terror”.[13]

Tunisian-Israeli relations peaked during Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s rule, to the extent that Benjamin Netanyahu openly expressed his concern about Israel’s security after the revolution managed to topple him. From 1993 onward, in the wake of the peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO, Tunisia established open relations with Israel through the Belgian Embassy in Tel Aviv and then by opening an “interests office” in the city. Tunisia also lifted most of the restrictions that had been imposed by the Arab boycott of Israel, and the meetings and reciprocal official visits intensified. Although the Ben Ali regime announced that it was severing communications with the Zionist state when the First Palestinian Intifida broke out, it did not hesitate to receive a high-level Israeli delegation in Tunis for the World Summit on the Information Society in 2005,[14] nor even to boycott the 2009 Arab League summit that discussed the Israeli offensive on Gaza.

To this day, the official data and archive that would allow us to inventory the economic interests and security and military agreements that were formed with Israel during the Ben Ali era (directly or via American and European intermediaries), as well as those not impacted by Ben Ali’s fall, continue to be withheld. However, data collected by Tunisian and global anti-normalization activists, which may only be the tip of the iceberg, suggests that the most important driver of normalization is the economic relations in the form of trade,[15] tourism, and investments, especially in the field of agriculture and irrigation.[16]


Anti-Normalization Movements: The Spirit of the Revolution and Shortcomings of Its Forces

In summer 2005, while the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia was accelerating its steps toward normalization, Palestinian organizations launched the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) initiative. BDS came at a time when the Intifada had laid bare the failure of the Oslo process and the complicity of the Palestinian Authority it created with the occupation. BDS and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) that emerged one year earlier, both of which were largely inspired by the struggle against South African apartheid, became a strategic threat to the occupying state. Although the key word in this movement is “boycott”, it is not in contradiction with anti-normalization. Rather, it directly confronts Israel’s persistent efforts to legitimize its existence and portray itself as a normal, democratic state that is a “victim of Palestinian terrorism”, rather than a racist colonial state with a very vast criminal record. However, the guidelines concerning boycotting and normalization that the BDS movement developed differ for Palestinians, Arabs, and other supporters of Palestinian rights, for the issue of normalization has unique dimensions in Arab countries whose societies continue not to recognize Israel.

In Tunisia, the demand to criminalize normalization was raised during the 2011 revolution, which promised political liberalization and the ability of the people to exercise its will. The climate of political freedom gave strong impetus for new pro-Palestinian groups to form. However, most of them were tied to regional axes, party projects, the personality that established them, or all these things simultaneously. Such groups include the National Committee for Supporting Arab Resistance and Opposing Normalization and Zionism headed by Ahmad el-Kahlawy, a left-wing nationalist who supports the depostic Arab regimes in Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt.[17]

However, the two groups that are the most important in opposing normalization, independent from political parties, and engaged in the international pro-Palestinian movement are the Tunisian Campaign to Boycott and Oppose Normalization with the Zionist Entity (hereinafter TCBONZE), which was established in 2014 by a group of left-wing youth (most notably activists Ghassen Ben Khelifa and Samar Tlili), and the Tunisian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (TACBI), which was established on the seventh anniversary of the revolution in January 2018 and was based primarily on the efforts of Ahmad Abbas, a mathematics professor in France. TCBONZE was, in its early years, linked to BDS but its statement on the assassination of Mohamed Zouari in Sfax in December 2016 led to an amicable official separation. The statement included praise for armed resistance against Israel that did not accord with the BDS movement’s official discourse, which focuses on nonviolent resistance, links the right to armed resistance to international law and the international human rights system, adopts no specific political solution to the Palestinian issue (i.e. one state or two?), and only makes minimalist demands, namely an end to the military occupation of the 1967 territories, the right of Palestinians to equality, and the right of refugees to return inside the 1948 territories.[18]

However, TCBONZE and BDS differ in more than just the ceiling of their respective political discourses. Most notably, TCBONZE has focused on cultural and artistic normalization at the expense of economic boycotting and opposing political and security normalization. Its most prominent protests have concerned artistic displays, such as a show by Michel Boujenah and the film Wonder Woman. Ironically, TACBI, which is theoretically concerned with cultural and academic normalization, has been more active and effective than TCBONZE when it comes to economic boycotting, as exemplified by its success in stopping Israeli shipping company ZIM from using the Port of Rades in 2018 after the Tunisian General Labour Union joined it and adopted BDS, as well as its efforts to cancel some Tunisian travel agencies’ trips to the occupied territories. This choice can be explained by a combination of factors, including the social background of TCBONZE members coming from the student movement, who reproduced forms of student support for the Palestinian cause, and the investigative capacities that the economic issue demands but are not always available.

While TCBONZE activists explain the focus on artistic and cultural normalization on the basis that it stirs public debate and thereby provides more of an opportunity for them to explain the dangers of normalization, this choice has objectively obscured more important forms of normalization that have not received the attention they deserve. Moreover, it may have sometimes helped to isolate the cause from a broader activist base that could have supported it, in contrast to the success of the BDS movement in Western societies in networking, gaining cross-sectional support, and mobilizing broadly. In particular, the oscillation of the anti-cultural-and-artistic-normalization approach in Tunisia between pressuring for boycott and occasionally seeking legal or judicial bans helped create misunderstanding and push some cultural elites toward tolerating certain forms of normalization in defense of artistic freedoms and out of fear that censorship would return. This is reflected, for example, by the 2018 proposal by the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee to constrain the right of associations to litigate in order to prevent them from filing cases aimed at blocking the screening of films or organization of tours considered normalization.[19]

From another angle, both TCBONZE and TACBI have treated the El Ghriba pilgrimage, which each year witnesses visits by Israeli nationals with Tunisian roots, with some caution. This reflects an awareness of the danger of a potential slip toward conflating Judaism with Zionism and the practices targeting Jewish Tunisians that it could entail. The decision to remain silent about the subject instead of democratically discussing it remains open to debate, especially as the authority monopolizes it and exploits it to market itself, but seems justified. This awareness of the need to affirm that Judaism is separate from Zionism was apparent in a remarkable (yet relatively uncovered by the media) event initiated by TACBI, with TCBONZE’s participation, to memorialize the Nazi arrests of Jewish Tunisians in 1942, honor their forgotten victims, and emphasize that, “Whoever denies the Holocaust denies the Nakba”.[20]

Finally, the key weakness in the work of the two campaigns is their inability to structure and institutionalize and their heavy dependence on the efforts of a limited number of people. This organizational weakness contributed to their limited operational capacities and mobilization ability. Perhaps the absence of a written bill that reflects a clear vision for opposing normalization, even though criminalizing normalization has been one of TCBONZE’s main demands since its establishment, is the best evidence of this.


The Text’s Poor Choices and the Mistake of Betting on Its Adoption

“We’ll vote it in first and then take the time to study and amend it” – this is how we could summarize the stance that the majority of people calling for normalization to be criminalized have taken on the bill that was presented to the “Assembly of Representatives of the People”. Speaker Ibrahim Bouderbala strived to block the bill using his limited powers, before the absolute ruler terminated the discussion with a “speech to the people”.

This was not the first time that a bill criminalizing normalization had been presented to Parliament. No less than five bills have been lodged, beginning with the Wafa Movement’s bill in 2012 and the Popular Front’s bill in 2015. With every Israeli war on Palestinians or an American attempt to bury their cause, the pressure to schedule and debate the pending bills has ramped up. Yet every time, the will to obstruct has been stronger, and the logic of political one-upmanship and embarrassing adversaries has trumped the desire to present a serious bill and mobilize support for it. Most of the bills primarily aimed to embarrass the Ennahda Movement, which had, since the Constituent Assembly, obstructed attempts to criminalize normalization and classify Zionism as a racist movement, after it itself had used the subject of normalization as a pretext to withdraw from the Higher Authority for Realization of the Objectives of the Revolution when it began discussing the decree on political parties and the draft republican pact.[21]

Hence, most of the bills presented had the same weaknesses and risks. They made no distinction between forms of normalization, did not focus on official normalization despite its danger, and did not include precise criteria defining the crime, thereby disregarding all those that the Palestinian and global boycott movement had developed. Moreover, an injunctive, over-criminalizing approach prevailed over the “boycott approach”, which seeks to effectively influence the balances of power and convince people to engage, and has a rights-based foundation. The end result, which is cartoonishly evident in the latest version, is a broad, substanceless criminalization that could inflict harsh punishments on millions of people not actually involved in normalization while neglecting its gravest form, namely normalization by state agencies and influential investors. The political fantasy that the bill would be passed, which prompted many to accept the president’s parliament even though it has no democratic legitimacy or real power, was based not only on the momentum created by Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza but also on misplaced confidence in the president’s sovereigntist slogans, which profess support for the cause only for domestic consumption, and on the internalization of the idea of a “savior leader”.

The “will of the president” suspended the examination of the bill when it was on the verge of passing, after the vote on it had already began, in a procedural farce that laid bare the already evident nature of the political regime, falsity of its slogans, and persistence of the hegemonic relations that governed Tunisia’s position on the Arab-Israeli conflict before and after the revolution and before and after July 25. Most probably, it is essentially the same will – be it foreign, domestic, or both – that has constantly obstructed the bills to criminalize normalization and forced its continuation in its various forms. This will has constantly been aided by the absence of real alternatives and a clear vision that could turn anti-normalization into an actual popular and democratic demand capable of mobilizing the streets and altering the balances of power.

However, what some people still refuse to understand is that what the revolution and democracy failed to dismantle – whether that be certain components of the authoritarian system or Tunisia’s position within the Arab system and international hegemonic relations – have found in President Kais Saied’s system and empty sovereignty the best cover and means of persistence. The key difference is that the gains achieved since the revolution in terms of altering the balances of power, creating democratic spaces, and creating scope for freedom, struggle, and collective action are today, when political action is being criminalized and power monopolized by one person, witnessing a terrifying recession. Thus, to the extent that the anti-normalization demand has reflected the spirit of the revolution, it has also borne the revolution’s deficiencies: namely the lack of social and democratic action that is organizationally, politically, strategically, and substantively independent from the authority and its inability to formulate a comprehensive emancipatory project that does not isolate political freedom from socioeconomic rights, environmental rights, and sovereignty or isolate Palestinian liberation from the Arab peoples’ liberation from despotism and hegemony.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] This label is used by researcher Malcolm Kerr in The Arab Cold War: Gamal ‘Abd Al-Nasir and his Rivals 1958-1970, Oxford University Press, 3rd edition, 2004.

[2] The association was founded by Alfred Valensi, one of the most prominent Zionist faces of the first generation.

[3] For example, in 1920, Tunisia had a delegate in the 10th Zionist Conference in Basel.

[4] In 1921, the Jewish population in Tunisia was estimated to be 48,435 people.

[5] Michael M. Laskier, North African Jewry in the Twentieth Century: The Jews of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, New York University Press, 1994, p. 257.

[6] In general, Palestine, after 1933 and with the rise of Nazism to power in Germany, witnessed an increase in the number of Jewish settlers “to over 30% of the total population by 1939”. See Rashid Khalidi, Harb al-Mi’a ‘Amm ‘ala Falastin: Qissat al-Isti’mar al-Istitani wa-l-Muqawama, 1917-2017, Arab Scientific Publishers Inc., 2021, p. 66.

[7] Nevertheless, it is important to recall that half of Tunisia’s Jews chose to settle in France, even if some of them played a significant role in developing economic and political relations between France and Israel. Laskier, North African Jewry, op.cit., p. 347.

[8] Michael M. Laskier, “Israel and the Maghreb at the Height of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: 1950s – 1970s”, Middle East Review of International Affairs, vol. 4, no. 2, June 2000, p. 96.

[9] Ridha Kefi, “Chronique d’une relation discrète”, Jeune Afrique, August 2005.

[10] Talks between Easterman and President Bourguiba, 2 September 1964, Switzerland, confidential, CZA, S65/113, The Moshe Sharett Files. Laskier, North African Jewry, op. cit., p. 305.

[11] Khalidi, op. cit., p. 150.

[12] Note that in 1982, Tunisia refused to receive General Secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine George Habash.

[13] A report in the Israeli newspaper Maariv stated that Mossad managed to recruit Tunisian government officials, who supplied it with the whereabouts of Palestinian officials. Jacob Abadi, “Tunisia and Israël: Relations under Stress”, Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 53 no. 4, 2017, p. 507-532.

[14] Under public pressure, the decision to receive Ariel Sharon was rescinded. However, an Israeli delegation comprising 100 people, including Silvan Shalom and Minister of Communications Dalia Itzik, attended.

[15] See the database on the International Trade Center’s website.

[16] These economic relations involve, in particular, the Israeli agricultural technology giant Netafim. In this regard, see the outstanding article by Ahmad Abbas, “al-‘Adw al-Sahyuniyy fi Tunis: Tasaru’ Nasaq al-Tatbi’”, Al Akhbar, 19 January 2019.

[17] See his interview with Borhane Bsaies in Li-l-Tarikh, Attessia TV, February 2022.

[18] Omar Barghouti, Boycott, Désinvestissement, Sanctions: BDS contre l’apartheid et l’occupation de la Palestine, La Fabrique éditions, translated from English by Étienne Dobenesque and Catherine Neuve-Église, 2010, p. 26.

[19] Report of the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee, June 2018, p. 83 and beyond.

[20] TACBI, “Tunis 1942: Fi Dikhra al-I’tiqalat al-Naziyya li-l-Muwatinin al-Yuhud”, Orient XXI, December 2020.

[21] Mouldi Guessoumi, “Fi Muwajahat al-Tarikh: Sada al-Hay’a al-‘Ulya li-Tahqiq Ahdaf al-Thawra fi Masar al-Islah al-Siyasiyy wa-l-Intiqal al-Dimuqratiyy fi Tunis”, Med Ali éditions, 2021, p. 171 and beyond.

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