Tunisian Ministers' Welcome of Israeli Tourists Meets Fierce Opposition

Tunisia's leaders are standing up for the right of Israelis to visit their country, but opponents say doing so violates the principle of non-normalization.

Zvi Bar'el
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Jewish pilgrims, some of them coming from Israel, walk toward the synagogue of El-Ghriba, in Djerba island, Tunisia in 2006.Credit: AP
Zvi Bar'el

Are Israeli tourists allowed to visit Tunisia or not? It depends whom you ask. Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, who took office in January 2014, says the issue does not even warrant debate.

“We must take advantage of the tourist season ... Normalization or non-normalization — leave those big questions aside. The date of the annual pilgrimage to the ancient synagogue on the island of Djerba [which takes place on the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba’omer] is approaching, and as the professionals have told me, the success of the tourist season depends on the success of the pilgrimage. It's a well-known tradition here, and there are procedures that we, and all the governments, have maintained for many years.”

Ridha Sfar, Tunisia’s deputy interior minister and national security chief, also sees no problem with granting a special permit to Israelis who wish to visit Tunisia. Nor does Tourism Minister Amel Karboul, who is even encouraging Israeli tourists to visit her country.

Tourism is the most important source of revenue for Tunisia, which until the 2011 revolution was a popular destination for European tourists. The tourism industry was hit hard in the three and a half years since the revolution and has only started to recover this year.

Karboul, who expects 7 million tourists to bring some $5 billion into Tunisia this year, is not willing to pass up any opportunity to attract more tourists, even if they come from Israel.

But dozens of members of the temporary Tunisian parliament do not share her view. They do not want to allow Israelis into Tunisia on the grounds that doing so violates the principle of non-normalization, which Tunisia holds in common with all the other Arab countries that have not signed a peace treaty with Israel.

Last month, 81 members of parliament submitted a demand that Sfar, the national security chief, and Karboul clarify their positions regarding visits by Israeli tourists. The hearing is scheduled to take place in about a week, though Karboul was quick to announce she is not afraid of any hearing and will be happy to clarify her stance.

Jomaa, the prime minister, also said that although he “would honor all decisions made by parliament, we must decide whether we are opposed to normalization or in favor of the recovery of tourism.” Jomaa was asked four months ago to explain why he had appointed Karboul as tourism minister, even though she had stated in her biography that she had visited Israel. Jomaa, unperturbed by the question, answered that Karboul had tried to visit Israel in 2006 to lead a training workshop for Palestinian teenagers, but since she had been subjected to a lengthy interrogation at Ben-Gurion International Airport, she had given up on the visit and gone back to Tunisia.

Interestingly, when Israeli passengers on a cruise ship were not permitted to disembark in Tunisia in March, it was Karboul who hurried to say that the reason for the prohibition was not political but technical, and that the government did not discriminate against any tourists.

The opponents of normalization do not have a majority in the parliament, but if they wish to, they may demand a vote of no confidence in the government of technocrats, which was established after a long period of instability, and cause a new political crisis precisely at a time when Tunisia is preparing for elections, which are scheduled for late in the year.

The strong stance of Jomaa and his ministers against the opposition in parliament will allow, at least pro forma, Israeli tourists to visit Tunisia. But it is feared that radical groups might target tourists, and not only those from Israel.

The army and police have increased their presence at the El-Ghriba Synagogue as Lag Ba’omer approaches, and Interior Ministry officials announced that the ministry would guard every tourist who attended the celebration there.

Still, the interior minister announced last month that a terror cell of eight armed men had been arrested. The cell was affiliated with Ansar Al-Sharia, which in turn is affiliated with Al-Qaida. This is the same group that took responsibility for the attack on the United States Embassy in 2012 and the murders of members of the opposition last year.

Despite the threat of terror attacks, Tunisia has managed to stabilize its regime, set up a temporary government that enjoys public support and draft a secular constitution, which, unlike the Egyptian constitution, does not draw on Sharia as its main source of legislation.

In addition, the new elections law, which passed last week, states that women must make up at least 50 percent of any party or list that wishes to run in the elections.

Tunisia also lifted its reservations about the full adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), becoming the first country in the region to adopt it fully.

While the decision still leaves in place some legal restrictions on women, mostly having to do with inheritance rights, women as well as men will be able to pass citizenship on to their children in case of divorce from a non-Tunisian spouse, receive equal opportunity in employment and be full partners in decisions having to do with their children.

Under the previous regime, which was overthrown in 2011, Tunisian women had enjoyed many rights not granted to women in many Muslim countries, and it was feared that their status would suffer a setback after the electoral victory of the religious Ennahda (Renaissance) Movement.

When I met one of the highest-ranking officials of the Tunisian government at a conference in Sweden several months ago, he told me his country would work to establish good relations with Israel, and that “both countries would derive a great deal of benefit from cooperation between them.”

When will that happen?

“Just let us stabilize the government and get organized, and we will move forward,” he said. Won’t the Israeli-Palestinian conflict delay the resumption of relations? “That is obviously one of the conditions, but it is likely that the time will come when every Arab country will make an independent decision.”

Maybe Israeli tourism will start the new era.