Don't expect Tunisia to join the Abraham Accords with Israel

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Analysis: Despite rumours and grave economic problems, support for Palestine runs deep in Tunisian society, with Kais Saied seeing any benefits to normalisation vastly outweighed by the costs.

Since Morocco joined the Abraham Accords in December 2020, there has been constant speculation about which Arab government might be next.

Various US officials and Israeli media outlets have implied or predicted that Tunisia could be that country.

But although the prospect isn’t impossible, there is ample reason to seriously doubt that Tunis would join the normalisation camp.  

President Kais Saied now basically runs a one-man show in Tunisia. Therefore, his views on Israel-Palestine must be understood. Tunisia entering the Abraham Accords would require Saied to abandon an important political conviction that for years has been key to his image.

When participating in a presidential debate on 12 October 2019, Saied strongly denounced normalisation with Israel and even condemned the use of the word normalisation. He declared that the “normal condition is that we are in a state of war with an occupying entity”. Saied accused Tunisians who favour opening diplomatic relations with Israel of “treason”.

"Although the prospect isn't impossible, there is ample reason to seriously doubt that Tunis would join the normalisation camp"

Saied’s passionate condemnation of normalisation in that 2019 debate was “very memorable for many Tunisians,” said Monica Marks, an assistant professor of Middle East politics at New York University, Abu Dhabi, in an interview with The New Arab.

But that wasn’t just campaign speak. In Saied’s 2019 victory speech he vowed to “support the just causes, including that of Palestine”.

As Marks put it, “He’s built not an insignificant part of his political identity in Tunisia on a throwback to old school Arab nationalism that is grounded in, among other things, opposition to having dealings with Israel”.

Saied’s firm opposition to normalisation has been important to his base of supporters during the 2019 election, his 2021 coup, and the present period.

“He has strong support still in certain corners of the Arab nationalist part of Tunisia’s ideological landscape which identifies itself very strongly with opposition to Israel. That’s a core feature, if not the core feature, of Arab nationalist political identity in Tunisia,” added Marks.

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Saied is far from being the only Tunisian who has denounced any talk about the Tunisian state having dealings with Israel. Throughout Tunisia’s society there has long been passionate support for the Palestinians, underscored by public demonstrations in favour of Palestinian rights and the anti-normalisation bill brought up in the parliament.

“I don't think there will be a normalisation between Tunisia and Israel,” Youssef Cherif, the director of the Colombia Global Centers in Tunis, told TNA.

“This move would be highly unpopular in Tunisia, and there are enough freedoms in the country, even after Saied’s power grab, to allow people to make their disagreements public if that's to happen or to be debated.”

As Marks explained, the culture in Tunisia is “very oppositional” regarding anything resembling normalisation with Israel. “Its opposition to having any dealings with the Israeli state is actually a key feature of Tunisia’s regional geopolitics.”

Many Tunisians’ firm opposition to Israel is about much more than just the Palestinian cause.

A young protester lifts a placard that reads in Arabic, 'you have to criminalize normalization with Israel if you are honest', during a demonstration held in front of Tunisia's parliament on 18 May 2021. [Getty]

Israel bombed the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s headquarters in Tunis in October 1985, which resulted in roughly 60 deaths and 100 injuries. That attack fuelled grievances which continue to inform many Tunisians’ perceptions of Israel as a threat not only to their fellow Arabs in Palestine, but also to their own country.

“Whenever a video gets leaked of tourists [in Tunisia] speaking Hebrew to each other on a tour bus and goes viral on Tunisian social media it provokes a lot of pushback,” Marks pointed out. “Having any kind of dealings between the Tunisian state and Israel is very much a political livewire in Tunisia.”

If Tunisia were to enter the Abraham Accords, it would be fundamentally different from Morocco doing so. The unofficial Israeli-Moroccan relationship that existed for many years before Rabat normalised with Tel Aviv in late 2020 resulted in a much less drastic change for Morocco than what could be expected in Tunisia if the country goes that route.

"Its opposition to having any dealings with the Israeli state is actually a key feature of Tunisia's regional geopolitics"

“Roughly a fifth of the Israeli adult population is of Moroccan origin,” William Lawrence, a professor of political science at the American University in Washington, pointed out in a TNA interview.

“Prior to the pandemic about 70,000 Israeli tourists were visiting Morocco every year, partially as a part of heritage tourism, visiting refurbished synagogues and the Arab world’s only Jewish heritage museum. Morocco’s new security relationship with Israel is deeply rooted in historical, cultural, and economic ties with its own diaspora,” added Lawrence.

However, Tunisia’s landscape is different. “In Tunisia, you’d need a lot of time to prime things up and change the culture,” Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher specialising in Libya, told TNA. “Having your army and security forces accept being close friends with Israel, that’s going to take time.”

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Regional dynamics

There are also regional factors to consider. Egypt and Morocco would welcome Tunisia entering the Abraham Accords. But it would fuel serious problems in Algerian-Tunisian relations.

To Algeria, Moroccan-Israeli relations as well as the Arab region’s trend toward normalisation are threatening.

Mindful of Israel’s support for Moroccan foreign policy vis-à-vis Western Sahara, Tel Aviv’s posturing against Algeria, and Moroccan-Israeli military cooperation, Algeria fears the implications of a stronger Moroccan-Israeli partnership. If Algeria becomes surrounded by states that have normalised with Israel, the Algerians will feel increasingly insecure.

In response to rumours about Tunisia joining the Abraham Accords, Algerian officials have expressed fear.

One Algerian official anonymously told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab’s Arabic-language sister publication, that Algeria is deeply concerned about Tunisia joining the Abraham Accords and the “possibility that there is a regional vision for ways to drag Tunisia towards normalisation, which involves destroying the political situation and exploiting Tunisia's needs, and that the pro-normalisation axis is working quietly [to this end] and is happy to play the long game”.

The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat walks amid the rubble of the PLO headquarters in Tunis on 2 October 1985 after six Israeli planes bombed and totally destroyed the PLO complex. [Getty]

Lawrence explained that “Algeria’s significant assistance to Tunisia is usually seen through the lens of helping keep Tunisia out of the Gulf or Egyptian sphere of influence, or even the Russian one. But another angle of analysis can be to see it as keeping Tunisia at some degree of distance from the burgeoning Israeli-Emirati-America sphere, and at the expense of further marginalising Palestinians”.

If Tunisia enters the normalisation camp, “Algeria is going to be unhappy and Algeria provides a lot to Tunisia,” said Harchaoui.

“It’s not publicised but it has resumed providing tourists since 5 July when the announcement of the reopening of the border was made and it provides natural gas. It provides a number of security guarantees. So, Algeria being unhappy will have tangible effects on Tunisia. They’re not of the pleasant kind.”

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A reason to join?

Why should Tunisia joining the Abraham Accords be considered a possibility? The simple answer is desperation.

Tunisia faces several grave economic problems and needs support from foreign governments and institutions. “It’s a country where very soon you’re not going to be able to buy fuel, where civil servants are not going to receive their salaries anymore, where you’re not going to be able to buy insulin for diabetics," Harchaoui said.

"All kinds of basic stuff are going to cease to be available because of this tragic situation that’ll translate most likely into a debt default, and still Western nations don’t seem to care”.

Whether entering the Abraham Accords could elicit a loan from the US, Gulf states like the UAE, or somewhere else is unclear. “What the world has been saying is that it doesn’t care about Tunisia. So…offering to join the Abraham Accords is something that Kais Saied might try,” explained Harchaoui.

"Ultimately, serious concerns about Tunisia's economic future could prompt Saied to abandon his stance against Israel"

When asked if she thinks that Tunisia will normalise with Israel, Marks responded, “I’d be surprised if it happens as long as Kais Saied is at the helm”. But she maintained that it is not impossible, mindful of incentives that some Arab states could give him for bringing Tunisia into the Abraham Accords.

“Saied does find himself in close conversation with Sisi and in some ideological company with Gulf actors who see him as a potential vehicle for their interests,” according to Marks.

“I don’t think they’re convinced yet, but they see him as a potential vehicle. He has been willing to wheel and deal with states that see him as an important bulwark of stability. He has interests like any other leader.”

Ultimately, serious concerns about Tunisia’s economic future could prompt Saied to abandon his stance against Israel. There is no denying that the US, Israel, the UAE, and Morocco would strongly favour Tunisia joining the Abraham Accords. These governments may try to push Saied in that direction. However, the fallout could fuel problems for the leadership in Tunis, not only internally but also with its much larger neighbour Algeria.

Already certain political parties and civil society organisations in Tunisia have demanded that Saied reject the credentials of Joey Hood, the US’s ambassadorial nominee to Tunisia.

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Their reasons have included Hood’s support for expanding the Abraham Accords to include Tunisia and his pledge to “use all tools of US influence to advocate for a return to democratic governance and mitigate Tunisians' suffering from Putin's devastating war, economic mismanagement and political upheaval”.

Tunisia’s former foreign minister, Ahmed Wanis, implied that Hood had “failed” as Washington’s ambassador to Tunisia before even beginning the post due to his efforts to bring Tunisia into a normalisation accord with Israel.

As Wanis put it, “they want to drag Tunisia to join those countries on the basis of a deal that involves granting Tunisia financial aid in exchange for recognition of Israel”.

Probably, at least for now, Tunisia’s government perceives the potential benefits of making such a controversial move as not outweighing the costs, which take the form of serious political risks.

Thus, Tunisian officials are likely sincere when denying the validity of claims that Tunis is on the verge of going down the normalisation road.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero

Emily Milliken is Senior Vice President and Lead Analyst at Askari Associates

Follow her on Twitter: @EmilyMPrzy