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U.S. Senate to Tunisia: If You Want Foreign Aid, Support Israel At The United Nations.

July 14, 2017

Amilcar Tile Work

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee to Tunisia: Want Aid? Soften Criticism of Israel.

The U.S. has Tunisia in a bind…again: support U.S. Middle East political initiatives  and allies or else the aid  or face serious reductions in military and economic aid. No mystery where that could lead. What choice does Tunisia have…having already dug its hole so deep. Although much has been made of the fact that Tunisia has not been plunged into the chaotic political maelstrom of Libya or Syria, the continued chronic economic and social crisis that has gripped the country places Tunisia in a vulnerable position where it is difficult to go against the wishes of Washington (or Paris).

It’s an old story, actually.

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed came to Washington recently (July 10-12, 2017) to plead his country’s case against the Trump Administration’s plan to cut its aid package to the North African country from $141 million (2016) to $54.6 million in (2018). In a meeting with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chahed was presented with a list of eleven “concerns,” one of which was a request (demand?) that, in exchange for maintaining the aid package at the 2016 levels that Tunisia support U.S. efforts to stifle efforts in different United Nations organizations critical of Israel.

Having the US pressure Tunisia to side with Israel at the United Nations (or elsewhere) undoubtedly creates tension between the Tunisian people and government undermining the stability that the US claims it is pursuing in the Maghreb. It is a case of typical U.S. political blackmail in which the influence of  the American Israeli Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and like organizations is more than likely. The threat is not especially subtle: if Tunisia wants to continue to receive U.S. economic and military aid it must follow “the rules of the game,” be a part of the team…and to play the role it has long played under Bourguiba – to push the Arab/Islamic world to normalize its ties with Israel in exchange from political and economic support from Washington.

Let’s be frank though, Tunisia’s weight in all this is so little that it doesn’t have much to lose by accepting these terms. No one in the Arab world listens to it – be it Bourguiba or Beji-Caid Essebsi-Ghannouchi – who is voicing such a policy. In exchange for badly needed economic and security aid, Essebsi will probably be willing to swallow his national pride without much hesitation, mind you, and cave to such pressures.

The “aid for supporting Israel” deal was first reported in an article (in French) in the award-winning Tunisian website/news source “” whose articles appear in Arabic, French and English. The article entitled “Chahed a Washington: Pourquoi le Senat americain plaide le cause d’Israel[1] was written by Thameur Mekki and Vanessa Szakal. As they note, the pressure on Tunisia not to participate in those U.N. initiatives critical of Israel is a part of larger concerted effort to muffle the growing criticism of the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian Territories, itself found illegal by international law and after fifty years, showing no signs of abating. Nothing new about such pressure.

This kind of political tango has been going on for decades and is part of a kind of unspoken by acknowledged bargain. To keep the U.S.-Israeli alliance strong and vibrant, Israel has frequently – if not incessantly – pressed the White House to temper Arab opposition to its occupation of Palestinian Territories. In exchange, Israel faithfully fulfills its role as an important American strategic asset in the Middle East. Different U.S. administrations have put little to no pressure on Israel to end its occupation and has showered Israel with more economic and military aid than other country.

That said, “on the street” throughout the country, it should come as no surprise that the vast majority of Tunisians have long felt a visceral and enduring solidarity with the Palestinian people causing the government to tread cautiously, caught as it is, between the dictates of Washington and sentiments of its own people. Since its 1956 independence, despite its more moderate approach, Tunisia has repeated and consistently expressed both sympathy and solidarity with Arab and other peoples opposing colonial domination and settler colonial movements like apartheid and Zionism.

It is not so easy for Tunisia to follow Washington’s lead where it comes to Israel. Support for the Palestinian cause runs deep among the Tunisian people. As the Nawaat article notes, in line with public sentiment in the country, Tunisia has always supported the UNESCO resolutions condemning the Israeli Occupation. Among the more recent UNESCO criticisms:

  • An October, 2016 resolution condemning excavations around the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem’s Old City. The latest version of the UNESCO resolution represents Jordanian and Palestinian complaints over recent Israeli actions around the site, including archaeological excavations, tourist projects, damage to buildings and claimed lack of access for Waqf officials. The resolution claims that through their excavations that the Israeli state is violating the religious status quo that has been in place concerning the site
  • In May, 2016, UNESCO again passed a resolution, this time, for having changed the cultural character of the city of Jerusalem through extensive excavations. The resolution reads that UNESCO “regrets the failure of the Israeli occupying authorities to cease the persistent excavations, tunneling, works and projects in East Jerusalem, particularly in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, which are illegal under international law and reiterates its request to Israel, the occupying Power, to prohibit all violations which are not in conformity with the provisions of the relevant UNESCO conventions, resolutions and decisions”
  • Just prior to Chahed’s Washington visit, on July 7, 2017 , despite “furious Israeli efforts to derail it,” again UNESCO declared Hebron (in the Occupied West Bank) “a protected zone” in response to a request from Tunisia, Kuwait and Lebanon. Specifically it declared the Tomb of the Patriarchs as an endangered world heritage site. UNESCO will be required to annually evaluate the situation in the old city, where a few hundred Jewish settlers live under heavy Israeli military protection in the midst of more than 200,000 Palestinians

The Unfinished Business of Hamman Chott

Tunisia has its own turbulent relations with Israel. Left out of this equation are certain events that Israel would rather forget that remain etched in the Tunisian historical memory. In October 1985, Israeli jet fighters flew 1500 miles to bomb Palestinian headquarters at Hamman Chott, 15 miles south of Tunis killing 50 Palestinians and 19 Tunisians. The United Nations voted to condemn the Israeli attack, with the United States abstaining. U.S. officials denied prior knowledge and at least one diplomat condemned the raid.

Israel claimed that bombing another country some 1500 miles from its shores was “a defensive act” in retaliation for the killing of three Israelis on Cyprus. The United Nations however considered the bombing an unprovoked war crime. The resolution of the U.N. Security Council (Resolution 573 of 1985) vigorously condemned the Israeli attack as an “act of armed aggression perpetrated by Israel against Tunisian territory in flagrant violation of the Charter of the United Nations, international law and norms of conduct.

Those who think that Tunisians – either the government or the people – have forgotten this case of open unprovoked Israeli aggression would be mistaken. Israel’s response that the attack was “a defensive response” never resonated anywhere in the world outside of Israel and the United States. Raising the question of the 1985 Israeli bombing on Hamman Chott should be considered in any relations between U.S.-Israeli-Tunisian relations. The United States abstained on the U.N vote condemning the Hamman Chott attack. Like Israel, Washington is not known for giving apologies for the war crimes that either it or its Israeli ally commit.

If diplomatic support of Israel is the price that Tunisia is asked to pay in exchange for political and economic support from Washington, it is unlikely that Essebsi will “stand strong” in demanding an apology, reparations or whatever for Hamman Chott, which was a blatant act of war and a classic example of how little either Washington or Israel cares about what it calls “collateral damage”…more aptly known as the murder of civilians or innocents who happen to be “in the way”. There is a direct line between Hamman Chott and Mosul today.

All this puts Tunisia in a diplomatic bind.

It has essentially followed the U.S. diplomatic lead on Middle East affairs since its founding president, Habib Bourguiba’s famous (in Tunisia) 1961 visit to Washington to meet John F. Kennedy and address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. This has included its early support for a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. In his statement on the Washington visit to the Tunisian press, Prime Minister Chahed insisted that it was not the Tunisian government that raised the question of Israel (as reported in the article). Discussions concentrated on economic and security issues relevant to the country, ie, the pressure from the World Bank and IMF that Tunisia continue to continue opening its economy along neo-liberal, free market lines and that it intensify its efforts to counter terrorism.

The Syrian Connection.

Tunisia’s political decisions – be it towards the Palestinians, Israel or Washington need to be understood within a framework of shifting U.S. Middle East tactics which center around Syria where U.S. proxies are not doing very well and Washington plan to partition the country a la Iraq and Libya (de facto but not yet de jure). In any event, all this needs to be put in a regional context for U.S. policy towards Tunisia does not work in isolation from broader regional concerns. It is then that all this makes sense (or makes sense to me).

In terms of the overall U.S. MENA strategy, Tunisia plays a rather modest, yet still vital role – it is what referred to as “a lily pad” – a kind of safe haven in an otherwise turbulent neighborhood, much like Jordan, a center for communication and (probably) a launching pad (in the south) for U.S. special forces operations throughout North Africa and the Sahara. In terms of its broader diplomatic role, it pretty much has gone along with U.S. regional plans since Bourguiba came to Washington DC and met with Kennedy. It was, at the time, a smart move actually, but far less so today.

In the early days of the revolt against Assad (2011-2015), the U.S. leaned more heavily on Qatar and Turkey. But they failed to do the job. “The Syria file” as it might be call, or the task, has been handed over to the Saudis with Israel playing a more active role. Up until about six months ago, Israel’s role in Syria has been somewhat restrained, limited to intelligence, training ISIS-al Nusra types and some medical support. A lot of that happened through and with Jordan. But as the situation in Syria deteriorated in the sense that the partition effort has failed – and with it, it appeared that the U.S. was about to suffer a major political defeat, Israel’s role has shifted.

It has begun to take a more active role militarily – some bombing missions more active role of its special forces, again coordinated closely with Jordan in an effort to save what remains of the partition plan in the region south of Damascus that were planned to become some part of a joint Israeli-Jordanian run region. In exchange for its engaging more militarily in the Syrian conflict that Israel would gain both territorially and strategically. A complicating factor in this plan is the presence of Hezbollah in S. Lebanon. As Israel “steps up” in Syria, the United States has also stepped up to curb criticism of Tel Aviv from Washington’s Arab allies, including Tunisia.

Tunisia has played a key role in the U.S. orchestrated program to overthrow the Assad government in Syria and partition the country. Overthrowing Assad is the central, or one of the central focuses of U.S. Middle East policy. For the socio-economic roots of all this there is a recent article by William Engdhal  about gas pipeline politics:  There are all kinds of deals being cut to strengthen the newly emerging U.S.-Saudi-Israeli love affair (it ain’t so, it’s old but being revitalized) in which all kinds of deals are being cut…Saudi is given “the green light” in its cruel war against Yemen, the repression of Bahrain, and Israel is offered a piece of southern Syria and a promise that U.S. diplomacy will pry open markets and diplomatic recognition in Arab countries (already well-developed in the U.A.R. and Qatar) in an effort to end Israel’s relative isolation from its regional neighbors. Israel for its part will have much to gain b0th territorially and strategically if Syria can remain partitioned.

From as early as 2011-12 Tunisia has been tapped to play a supportive political/security role in support of U.S. goals in Syria, made easier by the Muslim Brotherhood (Ennahdha) connections with Qatar and Turkey towards Syria in those early days of this terrible and mostly artificially created conflict. (There are of course, or were, legitimate grievances against the Assad government but those forces were quickly pushed aside and marginalized by ISIS-al Nusra types supported in the main by Qatar and Saudi. The legitimate opposition hollowed out, the ISIS types became the opposition).

Let’s remember that in the early days of the war against Syria that the way that Tunisia was “a part of the (U.S) team” was to encourage and actually help those thousands of unemployed youth to go off to Syria through Turkey to become ISIS-type killers. Tunisian youth in the thousands were recruited both by its own Ennahdha Party and different Salafist sources, their travels, training and arming paid for and sent into battle in Syria. The recruiting of Tunisian youth. It could not have happened – and did not happen – without Ghannouchi’s cooperation and now all those people (men and women) have come back like a boomerang to haunt and destabilize the country. Tunisian social movement leader, Choukri Belaid, who exposed that connection (at the time) with Qatar, was assassinated in large measure as a result.

[1] Chahed in Washington: Why is the American Senate lobbying for Israel?

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